The Food Safety Authority of Ireland acted on specific intelligence when testing frozen burgers for horse DNA, it has emerged - despite insisting its tests were simply part of its routine monitoring.

The revelation was made by Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson in a little-noticed comment in the Commons on Monday (11 February). Asked by MPs why the UK’s FSA had failed to test products for horse when the FSAI had done so, Paterson said: “The reason the Irish agency picked up this issue in the Irish plant was that it had local intelligence there was a problem. That is why it did a random check. I cleared that with [Irish agriculture] minister Coveney today.”

Paterson’s revelation raises serious questions about whether the FSAI should have done more to prevent consumers on both sides of the Irish Sea from eating adulterated burgers.

The FSAI started testing burgers in November and announced it had found horse DNA on 15 January, sparking product withdrawals and urgent DNA tests. “If they had intelligence that led them to start looking for horse in November, why didn’t they share this with the [FSA] in this country and why didn’t they alert industry?” said one food industry source.

The FSA said it knew of the tests in November but was only told by the FSAI that horse DNA had been found in products on sale in the UK on 14 January.

Asked by The Grocer about Paterson’s comments, the FSAI repeated its assertion that it had not acted on specific intelligence but said it could not comment on “conversations between ministers”. Coveney’s department also declined to comment, insisting exchanges between ministers were confidential.

The issue was muddled further on Tuesday (12 February) when food minister David Heath appeared to contradict Paterson’s statement on Monday, telling MPs FSAI “explicitly rejects the suggestion it was working on the basis of an intelligence-based system … They did not suspect adulterated meat was going to the UK they did a routine test and notified us when they had adverse results.”

Defra told The Grocer the two ministers’ statements were consistent. “When David Heath said the FSAI had found horse meat through random testing, he was correct,” a spokesman said. “This was because the FSAI got intelligence which led them to increase random testing.”