Horsemeat scandal: Reputational damage to the NI food industry
Horsemeat in beef products in County Down, pork DNA in halal pies in County Tyrone - it has not been a good few days for Northern Ireland's meat industry. But how damaging are such headlines to our global reputation as a food supplier?
Chris Elliot, Professor of Food Safety at Queen's University, Belfast, said the latest revelations were a "massive wake-up call" to the food sector on both sides of the Irish border.
He stressed that the problem was a loss of consumer trust and confidence, not a food safety issue. However, he said the scandal would not help local the industry's efforts to sell products abroad, or Stormont's efforts to promote Northern Ireland's agri-food sector to Asian markets.
"Our food products, not only beef but all our agriculture and food products, are sold on the pillars of safety and quality and here we have a big issue about the quality of what we are selling," Prof Elliot said.
Prof Elliot, who heads QUB's Institute for Global Food Security, said he expected the ongoing investigations into the contamination would be "rigorous" but added he had "a particular problem" with food labelling at present.
"If it says on a label that it is a product of Ireland or it is a product of the United Kingdom, we all should expect to say that is where 100% of the material comes from. The fact that there has been material imported from other countries, and added to local produce to go into further processing, is very disappointing."
The meat business forms a very significant part of the local economy so any threat to the supply chain must be taken very seriously.
According to Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA), up to 3,000 people are employed in the local meat processing industry, and it generates annual sales in the region of £1bn.
NIMEA's chief executive, Phelim O'Neill, said the sector processes about 430,000 cattle a year, 90% of which are sourced from Northern Ireland farms.
The majority of the meat produced (up to 80%) is exported to supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses in Great Britain.
Although Mr O'Neill agreed the negative publicity was "not good news", he argued that - depending on the response of businesses and regulators - the revelations could be used to "demonstrate the strength and positive credentials of the industry".
"In the past we've had issues around BSE, we've had issues with foot-and-mouth back around the turn of the century, we had issues with dioxins a few years ago," the chief executive said.
"All of those issues in the past were not good news stories on the day or at the time. The industry, by engaging constructively and very positively with the authorities in removing whatever problems existed, I think it enhanced in the long-term the reputation of the industry.
"I suppose the good news is that we find them out for ourselves, it's not a customer that has come back and told us something, you know? They've all been identified by the regulatory authorities, or indeed as I understand in some of the cases, by the companies themselves."
It has now been exactly three weeks since the horsemeat scandal broke.
On the evening on 15 January, the Republic's Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced the results of DNA tests it carried out on a number of beef products on sale in a number of supermarkets.
The FSAI tested 27 beef burgers and of that sample, 37% tested positive for traces of horse DNA, while 85% were found to contain traces of pig DNA. The amounts detected were very small, except for one beef burger from Tesco, that was found to contain 29% horsemeat.
Food for thought
Initially the problem appeared to be confined to two processing factories in the Republic of Ireland and one in Yorkshire, but there was no risk to human health, as the FSAI and others were quick to point out.
However, the test results gave consumers and producers some food for thought as to how much we know about where our meals come from, and what actually goes into them before they reach our plates.
Last weekend, it emerged that traces of pork DNA were found in halal pies supplied to UK prisons by County Tyrone company, McColgan's Quality Foods Limited.
Twenty-four hours later, a consignment of beef in a County Down cold store tested positive for horse DNA. The samples taken from Freeza Meat in Newry were found to be about 80% horsemeat. It did not enter the food chain and investigations into the origin of the meat product are continuing.
To date, there has been contamination and condemnation on both sides of the Irish border.
Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said the latest revelations were affecting our good image abroad as producer of top class meat.
In the Republic, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said the Ireland's reputation as an exporter of high-quality meat products was being harmed and the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, has called for an independent inquiry.
NIMEA is a trade association that represents large abattoir companies in Northern Ireland and a number of independent meat cutting plants. None of its members have been involved in the recent controversies.
However, Mr O'Neill said added: "We have a responsibility as an industry to always supply the product that we are supposed to be supplying. If there is a specification there then we should be adhering to it. We should certainly not be introducing product that's not recognised and approved as part of that specification."
'Price worth paying'
He would not be drawn on speculation that pressure from large retailers had encouraged local processors to source cheaper supplies form abroad.
"Irrespective of market forces, as an industry we have an obligation to adhere to whatever contracts and specifications we have signed up to," he said.
Prof Elliot from QUB said the substitution of "low quality, low value materials for the true foodstuff has plagued food production for centuries".
"As we are now in a global food supply chain the chances of such events occurring have increased markedly."
He said there must be "scientific verification" of the systems that food retailers' use to audit their supply chain.
"The costs involved in undertaking high-level verification will ultimately be passed to the consumer. However, I believe this is price worth paying to ensure what we eat is what we think we have purchased," Prof Elliot added.