The Irish government kept the horsemeat burger scandal from the public for almost four weeks, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has admitted.
The Fine Gael Minister has confirmed that his agriculture department had known since before Christmas about the test results showing trace of horsemeat in beef burgers.
As 10 million burgers were removed from sale, industry experts warned of dire consequences for Ireland’s beef exporters and Prime Minister Enda Kenny vowed to take action.
The Irish Independent reports that Minister Coveney is in the line of fire after it discovered that the Department of Agriculture was contacted on December 21 for assistance by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which in turn had received early test results in November.
The paper says that it has also emerged that one of the firms involved in the controversy had been audited just last month by his Department of Agriculture.
The government has now called on food board Bord Bia to repair the damage to an industry which employs over 100,000 people and it worth over $4billion to the Irish economy.
Opposition politicians have demanded to know why Coveney’s department kept the revelations quiet for almost a month.
But the Minister has maintained that there had been no food safety risk and that there had been a need to carry out further testing.
He said: “If you get a result like this, and there’s no danger to human health, which there isn’t, but if there is a significant reputational threat to an industry, you have to make sure those results are accurate.”
The scandal has even been debated in the British House of Commons where British Prime Minister David Cameron described it as a ‘completely unacceptable state of affairs.’
Supermarket chain Tesco has taken out a series of newspaper adverts to apologise to customers for the traces of horsemeat and pork in beef burgers on sale on its shelves.
Shares in Tesco dropped 0.7 per cent on the London stock market, a reduction of up to $500 million.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has confirmed to the Irish Independent that it had got initial findings about the presence of horse meat in beef burgers at the end of November.
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Ray Ellard, director of consumer protection, told the paper it had been crucial to get laboratory verification.
Ellard said: “When you go to companies with findings like this the first line of defence they give is always that your lab is rubbish and your results aren’t valid.”
Investigations are now focusing on the extra protein additive used to hold the beef burgers together.
Minister Coveney said it had been imported from the Netherlands and Spain, although he cautioned against ‘scapegoating’ these countries before the investigation was completed.
Coveney added: “There is no evidence so far to show the two Irish processing plants that produced the burgers, Liffey Meats in Cavan and Silvercrest Foods in Monaghan, had knowingly brought in horse meat to use in their burgers.
"We are confident this will not hamper efforts to break into the lucrative Chinese and US markets.
“Most of the meat product that gets exported out of Ireland is chilled fresh meat. This is a frozen burger market.”