Paul Finnerty, chief executive of ABP Food Group – the Irish meat processor whose Silvercrest plant produced the Tesco Everyday Value burger that was found to contain 29.1% horse – told MPs on Tuesday the company had put in place a “radical package of measures” to tackle the fallout from the scandal.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the horsemeat scandal came to light on 15 January, Finnerty made the following key points:

  • Silvercrest had bought meat from unapproved suppliers for “a number of months”
  • The management team at Silvercrest acted alone, without knowledge from ABP
  • The dodgy raw material was bought from Poland, but ABP still does not know where in its supply chain the adulteration happened
  • ABP did not previously audit its suppliers, but it will now
  • ABP has switched to 100% Irish and UK beef for its frozen burgers
  • ABP has stopped using meat traders and intermediaries; it is now sourcing only direct from primary producers
  • ABP has implemented a positive-release testing regime for its raw materials and finished products
  • ABP has carried out around 4,000 DNA tests across its business and found no horse problem other than at Silvercrest
  • ABP was a “victim of fraud”, like many other food businesses across Europe

A breakdown in internal controls at ABP Food Group meant that its Silvercrest business was able to buy raw material from unapproved suppliers, including from Poland, for a number of months leading up to the horsemeat scandal, Finnerty told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee of MPs.

Once the Food Safety Authority of Ireland informed ABP in mid-January that horse DNA had been found in Silvercrest burgers and ABP started its own internal investigations, it found a number of problems in how Silvercrest was being run, Finnerty said.

“We were out of specification and we have paid the ultimate price in having to close the factory” - Paul Finnerty

“The equine issue that arose at Silvercrest shone a light on the operation of the facility that caused great concern, in that we were made aware that product had been produced at Silvercrest that was, in certain cases, out of specification,” he said. “Out of specification”, in this context, meant that it was made using raw material from non-approved suppliers, he added. “Product was coming in from a combination of suppliers that weren’t approved.”

Asked how long this had been going on for, Finnerty told the committee: “I think it had been going on for a number of months.”

The committee heard that Tesco had approved seven specific suppliers for use for its frozen burgers – all from the UK and Ireland – but Silvercrest went elsewhere. “There were other suppliers that the local team chose to supply from, including supply from Poland,” Finnerty said.

Finnerty stressed the local management team at Silvercrest had acted alone – without knowledge from the wider ABP group – and that horse had not been bought knowingly by any part of ABP at any point.

He said ABP had paid the “ultimate price” for Silvercrest’s behaviour: “We were out of specification and we have paid the ultimate price in having to close the factory, losing the account at very considerable cost to our business.”

Silvercrest remains closed and Finnerty declined to comment on its future, saying “we’re looking at a couple of options around the site, and I’m not in a position to comment positively or negatively on that”.

‘Radical’ measures

Finnerty said ABP had implemented a “radical package of measures” in response to the discoveries at Silvercrest.

It has switched to 100% British and Irish beef for all its frozen burgers (previously, Silvercrest sourced up to 30% of its raw materials from outside the UK and Ireland), and will no longer use any meat traders or intermediaries, sourcing instead direct from primary producers. “What we are doing is to de-risk the whole supply chain and to bring us as close as possible to where the raw material is coming from,” Finnerty said.

Westminster Parliament

Paul Finnerty was quizzed by MPs over the horsemeat scandal.

The supply chain for frozen meat tended to be far more complex – and therefore potentially more vulnerable to fraud – than the supply chain for fresh meat, Finnerty told the committee. A key lesson from the horsemeat scandal was that the frozen supply chain needed to become more like the fresh meat chain, he added.

“The nub of the issue around Silvercrest and traceability hinges on the difference between chilled beef and frozen product that’s used for processed foods,” he said. “For chilled beef, which is 95% of our food business, the supply chain is very short. We try and procure two thirds of our cattle from within a 30-mile radius of each of the facilities that we use. Once the cattle come into our system, we have a highly secure system from there going through our business to ending up with our retail and foodservice customers. It’s a process that takes matter of days and a short number of weeks.

“Frozen food is different. It’s a product that has a lifespan of up to two years, and the raw material that’s bought is much more commoditised. And – as we’ve seen in this incident – it tends to go through many hands.”

Finnerty revealed that ABP did not previously audit its suppliers but had started to do so in response to the horse problems at Silvercrest. “We audit all of our suppliers now. We didn’t do that before – we relied on the EU licensing regime and BRC accreditation. We’re now auditing all of the suppliers that we’re buying from,” he said.

Finnerty also said that ABP had put in place a positive-release system for raw material and finished products to be able to guarantee that none of its products contains horse. He said around 4,000 DNA tests had been carried out across ABP’s operations, and – other than at Silvercrest – no horse had been found anywhere.

ABP also stressed to the committee that although Greencore initially named one of ABP’s plants as the source of contaminated beef found in an Asda Chosen By You Bolognese Sauce, it had clarified this week that ABP was not the source of the contamination.

Poland is source of horse

At the end of January, Irish authorities said they believed they had traced the adulteration at Silvercrest back to Poland, and Finnerty confirmed this was the case. “We’ve done extensive tests at Silvercrest since the issue arose, both on raw material and finished goods, and all of the positives we’re seeing are emanating from Poland,” he said.

He added that Silvercrest’s Polish supplier had denied any responsibility for the adulteration, and ABP had yet to determine where in the supply chain between Poland and Silvercrest the meat it had bought as beef was tampered with. Most of the meat that had come into Silvercrest from Poland had come in direct and not via meat traders, Finnerty added.

He stressed: “We are the victims in this, like many other businesses around Europe. We were defrauded.”