The Minister pointed out that testing in Ireland was much more rigorous than anywhere else and that might be one reason why the problem emerged here first. He also said he was determined to get the complete truth on what was going on.
Very quickly, as other countries in Europe began testing, it emerged that there were "beef" products (mainly ready meals containing minced "beef") being sold in several countries which contained horse meat.
But what was really interesting was the exposure of the complexity of the meat business and food manufacturing business in Europe, involving meat suppliers and traders who moved meat across the continent, sometimes meat that was frozen for months or far longer. And what was even more interesting was the reality behind those lovely pictures that were on the "beef" burger packs and lasagnes in the supermarket chiller cabinets.
We've all heard about mechanically recovered meat, the stuff that comes out of those suction machines that extract every last sinew and speck of flesh off bones and parts of the cow you don't even want to think about. All that goes into dog food, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
But new to most of us were the revelations about the frozen blocks of meat trimmings -- big boxes of all the bits of meat, fat, gristle etc that are discarded in butchery plants when the standard cuts of meat are being produced. These trimmings are frozen in big blocks and then sold to meat traders who sell them on to plants making burgers, ready meals, and other minced meat products, as a cheap way of bulking up meat content. They are traded like a commodity and the traders involved often never actually see the meat they are buying and selling.
What we now know is that these frozen blocks of trimmings often come from Eastern Europe, and are sold on by traders in other countries, sometimes after being held in cold stores for months. They can end up, for example, being used by a French company making lasagne or bolognaise sauce, or by an Irish company making burgers, and then end up in these products on supermarket shelves in Britain, or Ireland or other European countries.
That is what has happened. And the problem is that a significant amount of this stuff was not just beef trimmings, but horse meat. Beef trimmings are cheap. But even cheaper is horse meat. The Irish plant where the problem first emerged -- where the frozen burgers were supposed to be 100 per cent Irish beef -- has now accepted that maybe 10 per cent of what was going into the burgers was imported meat.
Which begs the question: Why is Ireland, probably the country in the world best suited to producing beef thanks to all the rain and the green grass, importing "beef" to put into frozen burgers? Profit, that's why.
Imported trimmings and horse meat are a fraction of the cost of natural Irish beef, which is a quality food.
It was a real eye opener for people here, not just for our customers in Britain and elsewhere. Suddenly everyone could see the reason why the frozen burgers in the supermarket chillers were one third the price of fresh burgers in Irish butcher shops. The reason is you can't be sure what's in them and a lot of them are garbage. Seduced by the pictures of juicy burgers on the packs, people had forgotten that you get what you pay for.
It was a shock. And people have reacted sharply. By last week sales of frozen meat products in Ireland had fallen by 44 per cent. People were going back to their small local butcher shops, where you can see the beef being minced if you want. Or you can buy a nice piece of steak and fry it up or slice it and make a stew.
We now know that the meat that caused this problem came from Eastern Europe, from Poland, from Romania and maybe from other countries over there where agriculture is like Ireland used to be in the 1950s. There are millions of horses over there, many still used for farm work. When they they get too old to work or they get sick, they are slaughtered. And they end up in the food chain.
The complex paperwork involved in traceability that is now routine in Ireland and in countries on the western side of Europe is all new to Eastern Europe. It's not really enforced properly, even though these countries are now part of the European Union. The poverty in rural areas means that corners are cut and rules are unknown or ignored.
It's ironic that the EU, which has probably the strictest food rules on the planet and drives farmers demented with all its form filling, has been asleep on the job while horse meat was being passed off as beef right across the continent. They still would not know what was going on if the Irish testing system was not so good.
One thing that may interest American readers is that it has also emerged that the horse meat detected in "beef" products here was not just coming from Eastern Europe. Some of it was coming from Mexico and, unexpectedly, from Canada. Now it's a long way from Mexico to here to be transporting cheap horse meat. So where is there a huge market where they love beef and burgers that is a lot closer to Mexico than Europe?