Did the Food Safety Authority of Ireland act on a tip-off when testing for horsemeat?

This controversial question reared its head again this week, as FSAI chief executive Alan Reilly faced questions from MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee. 

In an animated session, the MPs repeatedly made clear they were unconvinced by Reilly’s claim the FSAI had tested products randomly and as a matter of routine. “Don’t play the innocent with us, Mr Reilly,” committee chair Anne McIntosh said.

Labour MP Barry Gardiner added in reference to the 29.1% horse burger found at ABP’s former Silvercrest plant: “You are really asking this committee to believe you were just conducting a random test for horse at that level of DNA specificity, and – goodness me – you found it? The luck of the Irish, Mr Reilly!”

But Reilly insisted: “I have thought of that one burger, and I thought it was like winning the lotto.”

He stressed the FSAI was not acting on specific intelligence when it decided to start testing for horsemeat. “I’ve been down this road so many times with different people. We weren’t acting on a tip-off – just common sense.”

The FSAI had started testing processed meat products for horse because it had asked itself, “what are the likely sources of adulteration, what kind of meat could possibly be put in?” Reilly added.

Protecting the Irish food industry

Gardiner suggested the FSAI did have intelligence horsemeat was used in beef products and decided to conduct tests to lift the lid on the problem – but in a manner that would allow the Irish food industry to recover quickly: using an unaccredited test that the FSAI knew could not be used to prosecute companies.

“You wanted them to clean up their act, but you didn’t want them to destroy the Irish industry in the process, and your minister would have been furious with you if you had. So you developed a way of managing to square the circle.”

Reilly described Gardiner’s suggestion as “a fantastic theory”, but Gardiner added: “Isn’t it the theory you advanced in your conversation with [Food Standards Agency CEO] Catherine Brown when she asked you why you had used an unaccredited test? And you said: ‘it would be difficult to take a prosecution on the basis of these tests. [Irish agriculture minister Simon] Coveney’s job is to protect sustainable Irish industry. Silvercrest is a huge plant. We’ve identified where it’s come from, they have new management, and his agenda is to get it back to work, protect the industry.’ Why did you say that to Catherine Brown?”

Reilly said he did not deny Gardiner’s quotes but insisted his interpretation of what was said was wrong. He also stressed although the FSAI had initially not taken formal samples that could later be relied on in court, it did use an accredited laboratory to test samples.

A question of intelligence

Speculation about whether the FSAI acted on specific intelligence when deciding to test for horsemeat in November 2012 has dogged investigations on both sides of the Irish Sea since the scandal broke.

The FSAI has always insisted it tested randomly, but in mid-February, Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson told the House of Commons: “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 minister Coveney today.”

Coveney’s department subsequently suggested this was a misunderstanding.