UK officials were aware of potential labelling and traceability issues on meat product imported from Poland as early as September last year, it has emerged.

The Food Standards Agency announced on Monday (4 February) that samples of frozen meat in a cold store owned by Northern Irish supplier Freeza Meats had tested positive for horse DNA, with two samples containing about 80% horse. The tests were carried out last week as part of the FSA’s investigations into horse DNA contamination in burger products, which first hit the headlines in January this year.

But Freeza Meats said the product in question had been quarantined in its cold store since last autumn, after local environmental health officers from Newry & Mourne district council carried out a random audit on 17 September. This audit highlighted labelling and traceability issues with the Polish product, and Freeza said it has since been legally required to detain the product under quarantine as it awaited further instructions from local environmental health officers.

The Food Standards Agency confirmed the inspection revealed “documentary irregularities” in relation to the product but stressed there was absolutely no indication that horse meat was involved. “It’s categorically untrue that the FSA was aware of any horsemeat contamination issues in September last year,” a spokeswoman said.

She added environmental health officers had, in fact, been checking the consignment for desinewed meat (DSM), to ensure a recent moratorium was being complied with. No DSM was found.  

After the Food Safety Authority of Ireland published its survey on horse DNA contamination in burgers in January, the FSA subsequently decided to test the quarantined meat for horse. “The meat was also tested for the presence of phenylbutazone, and these tests came back negative,” the spokeswoman said. “The meat was not released into the food chain at any point.”

The 80% horse product found at Freeza was not actually supplied by Freeza but merely stored there on behalf of McAdam Foods Service, a meat trader from County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland. All of Freeza’s own products have tested negative for horse DNA.

McAdam has confirmed that it asked Freeza to store the product, which it said had been supplied to McAdam via a UK-based meat trader.

It also said the inspection through environmental health officers at Freeza last September “highlighted some labelling issues on this product”, adding McAdam had then supplied “all relevant information” about the product and its Polish origin to a senior environmental health officer “who subsequently contacted the Polish meat supplier via the UK-based meat trader who supplied product to us”.

McAdam also said it had relinquished its ownership of the detained product “and the UK meat trader agreed to take ownership and address relevant queries from the officer”.

Freeza stressed environmental health officers were kept fully informed about the McAdam product in its cold store. “At all times, we have worked in conjunction with the Environmental Health Office, who have been fully aware of the background to this McAdam product from the outset,” it said.

In a statement, Newry & Mourne district council confirmed the McAdam product had been under quarantine for the last five months and said this was “due to the condition of its wrapping and queries regarding its labelling and traceability”.

John Farell, Newry & Mourne district council’s director of environment, health and building services, said he commended the work of environmental health officers in preventing “further horse meat from entering the food chain”.