The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has hit back at “disingenuous, dishonest and untruthful” suggestions the methodology it used to test frozen burgers for horse DNA was unsound, saying it is confident its results are robust.

The move comes after frozen foods retailer Iceland said on Friday (15 February) that the FSAI had used a methodology that was not accredited in the UK when testing frozen burgers for horse DNA. The results of those tests, published on 15 January, detected 0.1% horse DNA in two Iceland burgers, but Iceland said its own “accredited, independent” tests had not discovered any horse DNA contamination in the same batches of burgers.

However, the FSAI said on Monday (18 February) it stood by its results, which were conducted by “two internationally recognised laboratories”, adding it was disappointed that “some small segment of the retail sector is seeking to undermine the actual results in an attempt to distance themselves from the scientifically sound results which have implications for their product”.

“Attempts to cast doubt on the veracity and robustness of the DNA testing carried on [the FSAI’s] behalf by a number of laboratories are disingenuous, dishonest and untruthful,” it said.

Although the method used by one of the labs – Identigen in Dublin – was indeed unaccredited, this did not invalidate the findings, as these had been “corroborated and demonstrated as accurate” by the second lab, Germany’s Eurofins, which did have “the particular method used […] to identify the equine DNA […] included in its scope of accreditation”, the FSAI said. It added that both Identigen and Eurofins had quality management systems that were accredited to European standards, and both labs were used by industry and regulators across Europe.

Iceland had also argued that the 0.1% level of horse DNA contamination on its products identified in the FSAI results was far lower than the 1% tolerance level agreed by the UK’s Food Standards Agency as a “sensible threshold to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination”.

But the FSAI said the 1% level – which is also being used in the EU’s testing regime agreed last week – was an “arbitrary action level, above which fraudulent activity might be suspected, the reasoning being that substituting horsemeat for beef at less than 1% would be of no commercial advantage”.

This did not mean that results below 1% were meaningless, it added. “In the case of the burgers from Iceland, a level of 0.1% equine DNA was detected in samples tested by Identigen,” it said. “This positive finding is still relevant and should of itself trigger investigation.”

FSAI reiterates tip-off denial

The FSAI also repeated its assertion that it did not act on specific intelligence when testing burgers last November.

Last week, Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson told the House of Commons he had been advised by Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney that the FSAI had acted on “local intelligence” when testing for horse DNA. “The reason the Irish agency picked up this issue in the first place was that it had local intelligence there was a problem. That is why it did a random check. I cleared that with minister Coveney today,” Paterson said.

The Irish department for agriculture, food and the marine initially declined to comment, saying conversations between ministers were confidential, but over the weekend was quoted as saying that Coveney had phoned Paterson on Saturday to advise him the position was, in fact, that the FSAI’s checks had been random.

Defra said Owen Paterson had been speaking to Coveney on a daily basis “but we’re not going to give a running commentary on it”. It declined to say whether Paterson was standing by his comments from last week.