Bolting the stable doors in Ireland - laughing at the horse meat scandal while the food industry suffers


Horse meat controversy continues in Europe

Don't you love the way the Irish laugh in the face of adversity? Whatever the problem is, you can count on us to turn it into a joke. And let's face it, this horse meat scandal was just made for it ... it's all over Facebook and Twitter here.

There are the ones that give advice on ordering in an Irish restaurant: "I'll start with some horse d'oeuvres before I go on to the mane course."

There are the obvious ones: "So that's what happened to Shegar!" "I just checked the burgers in the freezer -- and they're off!" "It’s tough working on the meat counter in Tesco these days - I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse." "My brother ate two burgers yesterday and ended up in hospital - but it's OK, he's stable!"

There are the clever ones like "A horse walks into a bar. The barman says sorry mate, we don't serve food in here."

There are the risque ones about Irish Viagra and Italian Stallions ... and worse.

But my own personal favourite was the following: "Enough about the burgers, check out Tesco’s meatballs - they’re the dog’s bollocks!"

You can laugh, but the way things are going here, no one would be too surprised if dog meat traces did turn up somewhere in a burger. It's meat, right? And it's not like it's rat.

It's easier for us to laugh these days, of course, because what started out as a major embarrassment and potential catastrophe for Ireland a few weeks ago has now been exposed as a Europe wide problem. It's not just us, it's everyone else as well. Horse meat has been found in "beef' products across the continent, in frozen burgers and various supermarket ready-meals like spaghetti with bolognaise (boloneighs?) sauce and lasagne. All forms of frozen dinners and processed meat items are being tested. In Britain they have found horse meat in school dinners, hospital food and prison meals.

Some of the biggest brand names in the food business in Europe have been implicated, although all of them are saying they did not realise that the meat they were putting in their "beef" products had been adulterated with horse meat by the suppliers somewhere further back in the food supply chain.

In one way, the spread of the scandal across Europe is good for us here in Ireland. It shows that although the problem was first revealed in Ireland when testing here revealed that frozen beef burger patties made in an Irish meat factory contained some horse meat, the problem is not solely an Irish one. It's just that it was found here first, mainly because as a beef producing country we have more rigorous testing than anywhere else in Europe.

It was, of course, extremely damaging, delivering a serious blow to our international reputation as one of the leading quality food producing countries in the world. And the damage will not be repaired easily. The initial publicity went global, not least because the Irish meat plant where the problem was first uncovered was huge, producing millions of these frozen burger patties for big supermarket chains here and in Britain.

The patties were supposed to be 100 per cent Irish beef. The ones that ended up in the chilled cabinet in British supermarkets proudly said so on the packs. Since they were coming from Ireland, British consumers would have bought the burgers presuming the beef was from Irish cattle grazing on grass in the lush Irish countryside.

That is the image we trade on, the most natural beef in the world, raised on the best grass. We're well known for horses as well, of course, but not in the burgers!

The crisis started in the middle of January when the tests at the plant in Ireland showed up traces of horse meat in some burgers, with one burger tested turning out to be almost one third horse meat. The Irish Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney immediately released the information, claiming that we were completely transparent.

It was a huge shock. At risk immediately was our beef industry, because we export around 90 per cent of the beef and it's worth over a billion euro a year to the Irish economy. So what might be an embarrassment for some other country was a potential catastrophe for us.