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CEO Statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Opening Statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 5th February 2013

Professor Alan Reilly, Chief Executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland

Chairman, Committee Members, Minister,

I thank you Chairman for inviting the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) to update your Committee on our study which investigated the authenticity of meat products on the Irish market.  In making this presentation and addressing your queries, I am joined by my colleague Raymond Ellard, Director of the FSAI Consumer Protection Division.

The FSAI has brought to light some very poor practice within the burger manufacturing industry which is not acceptable, although it remains to be seen whether this is the result of carelessness, collusion or deliberate fraud.

The Role of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in food safety control

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) was established in 1999 as a national body with responsibility for the enforcement of food law in Ireland. We are a statutory, independent and science-based agency, dedicated to protecting public health and consumer interests in the area of food safety. The FSAI was set up to be independent of the food industry and we operate under the aegis of the Minister for Health.

The FSAI’s principal function is to take all reasonable steps to ensure that food consumed, distributed, marketed or produced in Ireland meets the highest standards of food safety and hygiene. We are also charged with bringing about the general acceptance that the primary responsibility for safety of food is borne by the food industry across the food chain. Over the past 14 years, the FSAI has worked in partnership with all interested parties to ensure a consistent standard of enforcement of food legislation and to underpin food law with science-based risk assessment.

Surveillance and Monitoring of the Food Chain

The FSAI oversees an extensive programme of food testing in Ireland to safeguard consumer health in relation to food and to assess compliance by the industry with labelling and other relevant legislation. Annual monitoring programmes are agreed with official agencies that work under service contract to the FSAI. Based on a collective risk assessment and the requirements of regulations, these programmes cover a diverse range of microorganisms and chemical compounds that are tested in a network of official laboratories.

Each year, the FSAI organises additional surveys across a range of foodstuffs. The survey on the authenticity of meat products was one of these. For background, since 2005, we have used DNA testing for similar surveys which looked at the authenticity of chicken fillets, smoked wild and farmed fish, and fish products. In 2012, we selected meat products for examination using sophisticated DNA-based analytical techniques to differentiate between animal species present. This was a routine survey examining the authenticity of beef meal products, salamis and beef burger products. We tested for pork, beef and horse DNA. Contrary to some speculation, it was a random survey – our ongoing work is guided by a combination of scientific risk assessment and, I trust, ordinary common sense. 

The survey was carried out against a background of increasing prices of raw materials used in food and feed manufacture, and the global sourcing of ingredients. This can lead to a temptation to cut corners, to substitute cheaper raw materials for higher priced ingredients. The longer the food supply chain the higher the risk that something may go wrong, such as the sourcing of ingredients containing horse DNA.

In conducting this survey, we uncovered a problem which might otherwise have gone undetected here, or been discovered first in our overseas markets. Although the findings have provoked a widespread response, fostered lengthy public debate and given rise to questions about the quality of some of our food supply, I believe that the eventual impact and outcome will be positive for consumers and for the reputation of Ireland as a producer of safe and wholesome food. 

Timeline of Study

The first samples for the study were purchased from 7th to 9th November 2012 and delivered to the Identigen testing laboratory in Dublin within a few days of purchase. Salami products (19), beef meal products (31) and beef burger products (27) were sampled from major retail outlets and they were tested for animal species using DNA profiling.

The first sets of results were all qualitative (i.e., the results show a presence or absence of DNA) and received by the FSAI on 30th November 2012. Of the 19 salami products analysed, 10 tested positive for bovine (beef) DNA, all were positive for porcine (pig) DNA, while equine (horse) DNA was not detected. There were no significant issues with the salami products that warranted further investigation.

Of the 31 beef meal products (such as cottage pie, beef curry pie or lasagne), all were positive for bovine DNA, 21 (68%) were positive for porcine DNA and none were found to contain equine DNA. Only two of these beef meal products declared on the label that they contained pork, which was found at very low levels and therefore, we considered its presence may be unintentional and due to cross-over from processing of different animal species in the same plant.

Of the 27 burger products analysed, all were positive for bovine DNA, 23 (85%) were positive for porcine DNA and 10 (37%) were positive for equine DNA. Most of the burgers positive for porcine DNA were not labelled as containing pork which was found at very low levels and again we considered its presence may be unintentional and due to cross-over during the processing of different animal species in the same plant. The 27 burgers which were tested in this study came from nine different manufacturers, six in Ireland and three in the UK. The products which tested positive for equine DNA came from three plants, two in Ireland and one in the UK. 

A surprising result was the detection of equine DNA in 10 beef burgers which were not labelled as containing horse meat. Given this unexpected finding, we decided that these results needed to be confirmed and the laboratory was requested to sequence the DNA detected to ensure that it was of equine and porcine origin. This was confirmed by the laboratory on 10th December.

As an additional confirmatory check, the FSAI purchased more burger samples on 10th December from the same or similar product batches to the original samples that tested positive. Results for these extra set of samples were received by the FSAI on the 18th of December and again were found to be positive for equine DNA. 

For the sake of certainty, on 21st December, 20 sub-samples (10 positives and 10 negatives) from the initial 27 samples were taken from the Identigen laboratory and sent as blind samples to the Eurofins laboratory in Germany for additional independent testing.  All results up to this date were qualitative which indicated the presence or absence of equine DNA but not the amount. Both laboratories were therefore asked to quantify the amount of equine DNA in the samples.

The FSAI was and is confident about the competence of both laboratories. Both operate to high standards and are accredited to the European Standard EN ISO/IEC 17025:2005.

On the 21st December, the FSAI requested the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to obtain samples of raw ingredients from the two implicated meat processing plants in Ireland. These were sent to the Identigen laboratory on 4th January 2013 and results received on 11th January. The results showed very low or trace levels of equine DNA in beef products from the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. These products, however, were not linked as ingredients in the burgers that tested positive. We advised our counterparts in Spain and the Netherlands of our findings.    

Semi-quantitative results from the Eurofins laboratory in Germany were received by the FSAI on 11th January 2013 corroborating the initial results of the Identigen laboratory. In addition, quantitative results from Identigen were received by the FSAI late on the evening of 11th January 2013.  Of the 10 burger products that tested positive for equine DNA, all but one was at low levels. The quantification of the equine DNA in this one burger product gave an estimated amount of 29% equine DNA relative to the beef DNA content of the burger product. This product was manufactured by Silvercrest on behalf of Tesco. At this point, there was no explanation for the finding of 29% equine DNA relative to beef DNA in this single sample.

Food safety risks associated with these findings

The FSAI considered that there was no risk to consumer health associated with these findings. When assessing risk, the FSAI bases all its decisions on sound science. In this case, we evaluated the potential risks, such as the presence of bacteria or residues of animal drugs. Firstly, if bacteria were present, they would be killed by cooking and as these burgers are cooked before they are eaten, there would be no risk to consumer health. Secondly, we also had the burgers that tested positive for horse DNA, tested for the presence of a range of animal remedies  including phenylbutazone by the State Laboratory on 10th December. Phenylbutazone is a commonly used medicine in horses. Once administered to a horse, the animal is not allowed in the food chain. The FSAI received these results on 19th December and all the results were negative for the presence of phenylbutazone and other drugs.

The finding of even trace amounts of equine DNA in beef products, even if of no public health concern, is relevant  and worthy of  further consideration in cases when the manufacturing plant does not handle horse meat products.

For plants that do not handle horse meat it is relevant to explain how contamination has occurred. On 14th January, we discussed the survey findings with management from both plants who confirmed that they did not use or process equine material in their plants.

On 14th January, the FSAI informed officials in the Department of Health and in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of the findings. We understand that both ministers were informed by their officials on 14th January.  We also advised the Food Standards Agency in the UK and Northern Ireland on that day.

Also on 14th January, we requested the HSE to take formal samples of burgers from a range of retail and catering premises. These samples were analysed in the Eurofins laboratory in Germany, under the direction of the HSE’s public analyst in Cork. All samples later (29th January) tested negative except one sample from Tesco which confirmed previous findings.

On 15th January, we advised the five retailers concerned (Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland) of our findings. They each took immediate and independent decisions to remove implicated products from the market.

The FSAI issued a press statement on 15th January and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine began an investigation into operations in both plants. The FSAI fully cooperated in the investigation. The Minister has given details of how the investigation progressed and how a raw ingredient labelled as of Polish origin was identified as the source of the equine DNA.

Lessons

At this point, the FSAI can draw some preliminary conclusions about lessons for the future.

• Clearly modern analytical techniques are essential in combating food fraud.

• A key lesson for the food industry is robust supplier control and verification of supply. When purchasing raw ingredients for inclusion in processed meat products, it is necessary to ensure that all ingredients are lawfully declared. Knowledge, control and checks of primary and secondary suppliers are essential.

• The detection of trace amounts of non-bovine DNA highlights the need for food processors to be more vigilant about the integrity of food ingredients and the potential for cross contamination in plants where meat from multiple species is handled. Food business operators should validate their cleaning programmes for their ability to eliminate or reduce to a reasonable level, cross-contamination of meat products by tissue from undeclared other species.

• Some research is required to determine if there are thresholds below which cross-contamination with DNA is unavoidable.  Should that prove to be the case, authorities, consumers and the food industry across Europe will have to consider how this can be addressed. This matter will need to be addressed at European level.

When purchasing processed foods consumers cannot tell what type of raw materials are used. They rely on labelling and they put their trust in brands, manufacturers and retailers.  Therefore, the most valuable ingredient for any food business, and in this case processed meat products, is trust. 

I am happy, Chairman, to answer any questions you or the committee may have.