AGRICULTURE Minister Michelle O’Neill has maintained her defence of Northern Ireland’s beef industry and promised her DARD officials will ‘work tirelessly’ to protect it.
The minister informed the Assembly of the ongoing progress being made through investigations into the horsemeat scandal during a meeting at Stormont on Monday.
The Northern Ireland agriculture industry has been rocked by the discovery of equine DNA in beef products, which is now the subject of investigations taking place in countries across Europe.
However minister O’Neill used the opportunity to once again make it clear that this issue has nothing to do with the high quality, fully traceable beef produced in the province.
The minister said: “My department delivers meat hygiene official controls on behalf of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in approved slaughterhouses, and other establishments. Senior officials from my department and FSA maintain regular formal and informal contact to ensure consistent and effective delivery to the agreed standard, and the FSA performs regular checks and independent audits to ensure the quality of work delivered on its behalf.
“My departmental inspectors enforce regulations, which provide customers with assurance about the origin of beef, in abattoirs and approved cutting plants. It is on this basis that I am confident of the high quality, safety and full traceability of beef born, raised and slaughtered in the north.”
The minister said that she has appealed to the FSA to carry out full and thorough investigations and to provide the public with information on how these are progressing.
She said: “The horsemeat controversy has now become a pan-European investigation. An intense investigation into the traceability of the adulterated processed meat products is still underway, and the FSA is working closely with the respective authorities.
“This is a very serious issue and evidence points to either gross negligence or deliberate contamination of the food chain. For this reason, the FSA is working closely with police forces across Ireland, Britain and Europe and already a number of arrests have been made in Britain.
“I intend to ensure the FSA continues to require supermarkets to maintain their responsibility to provide their customers with assurance as to the authenticity of their beef products by continuing to carry out surveillance for species.
“I also want assurances that traceability of raw materials continues from the fresh meat sector through to the processing sector. It is important that a system is put in place in order to ensure that ‘horizon scanning’ for future potential problems is improved, and I will wish to investigate further the proposal from Safefood for a neutral environment where information can be placed anonymously.”
The minister concluded: “During these investigations my officials will continue to work tirelessly to protect the beef industry in the north and I would encourage local consumers to continue to support our industry and to buy and consume local produce.”
The SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie has called on the UK government to clarify whether they were aware of the possibility that horsemeat had entered the food chain prior to the current scandal.
The South Down MP said: “It is absolutely vital that the Department for Health and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clarify exactly what advice they were given and when. It has been alleged that they were aware of the potential contamination of the food chain as far back as 2011.
“I will be seeking clarification from the Secretary of State on the exact nature of any representations that he received on this. If they did know they must reveal what action they took at the time or explain why this advice was ignored. The government have been behind the curve on this and they urgently need to introduce a more robust regime for food testing and provenance certification.”
Meanwhile, retailers have confirmed to the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson that they expect the vast majority of tests on processed beef products to be completed by Friday.
Retailers and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) met Mr Paterson on Monday afternoon for the first time since test results covering 65 per cent of the targeted products were published last week.
Speaking after the meeting, the BRC also said that retailers are doing all they can to engage with consumers on the issue and establish the extent and causes of failures in the supply chain.
BRC director general Helen Dickinson said: “Test results have continued to come in over the weekend. The labs are working flat out and our members are confident that the vast majority of testing will be completed by Friday. We were very pleased that the Secretary of State recognised the hard work of retailers in progressing their testing programmes so quickly.
“Retailers take their responsibilities very seriously and are doing everything they can to maintain consumer confidence and increase surveillance. Members are meeting every day with the Food Standards Agency and working around the clock to understand what has happened and act on lessons learned.
“Our top priority is to continue to engage with our customers and reassure them that we have effective solutions to the issues that have come to light. Retailers are using every available channel for direct dialogue with their customers, from social and traditional media to answering questions in-store.
“It’s clear that there will be things that need to change for the future as a result of these incidents. Retailers are scrutinising their systems and processes, alongside intelligence gathering and sharing to identify practical improvements that will turn the lessons learned into action.”