DUBLIN - An Irish slaughterhouse has been caught labeling horse meat as beef and shipping it to a company in the Czech Republic, Ireland's government announced Friday in the most clear-cut finding by any country since the European-wide scandal began a month ago.
No other government across Europe has pinpointed a single slaughterhouse that was mislabeling horse meat as beef. Until now, any companies found selling meat products containing hidden amounts of horse have insisted they were duped by others, while suspected slaughterhouses have insisted they either did not handle horses or labeled all horse-meat exports correctly.
But Ireland says its fraud detectives have identified the practice at B&F Meats, a small slaughterhouse in the County Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir that is licensed to debone both cows and horses, and immediately shut down the facility.
Ireland's Agriculture Department said in a statement that detectives had discovered that B&F Meats was shipping horse meat "to a single customer in the Czech Republic ... using a label in the Czech language which, when translated, refers to beef." Officials said the mislabeling was happening in the plant and not later in the supply chain, which included a British-based meat trader.
No officials at the plant were arrested, and Irish officials declined to specify the volume of horse meat involved or the Czech company that imported it.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said he was "seriously concerned about this development."
B&F is the oldest slaughterhouse licensed to process horse meat in Ireland, and its product is legally sold to Irish and British makers of pet food as well as to customers in France, where horse meat is widely available for human consumption.
Nobody answered the telephone Friday at B&F, and company director Ted Farrell also did not pick up his telephone.
The scandal began in Ireland in mid-January when the country's Food Safety Authority announced the results of its first-ever DNA tests on beef products. It tested frozen beef burgers taken from store shelves and found that more than a third of brands at five supermarkets contained at least a trace of horse. The sample of one brand sold by British supermarket kingpin Tesco was more than a quarter horse.
Such discoveries have spread like wildfire across Europe as governments, supermarkets, meat traders and processors began their own DNA testing of products labeled beef and have been forced to withdraw tens of millions of products from store shelves. More than a dozen nations have detected horse flesh in processed products such as factory-made burger patties, lasagnas, meat pies and meat-filled pastas. The investigations have been complicated by elaborate supply chains involving multiple cross-border middlemen.
In the latest such move Friday, frozen food maker Birds Eye withdrew three microwave-ready dishes — spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd's pie and lasagna — from all supermarket shelves in Britain and Ireland because it suspected that the products might contain horse meat. A DNA test on another Birds Eye-branded product on sale in Belgium, a chili con carne dish, determined it contained 2 per cent horse. All four products were made by one of Birds Eye's subcontractors in Belgium, a maker of ready meals and kebab meats called Frigilunch.
Ireland previously had found no evidence to show that any horses slaughtered in the country ended up in the human food chain. The initial discovery of horse in Irish-made burger patties for sale in Ireland and Britain was linked to suppliers in Poland. Polish authorities insisted they could find no evidence of wrongdoing there.
Similarly, French authorities have identified the meat processor Spanghero as a source of horse meat in the human food chain, but that company insists it was duped by foreign suppliers stretching from Luxembourg to Romania. And Romanian authorities insisted in reply that any of its horse meat sold for export was correctly labeled as horse.
The profit motive is obvious for fraudsters.
Horse meat might fetch prices of €600 to €700 ($800 to $950) a ton, while beef costs around €4,000 ($5,500) a ton. And without DNA testing — rarely done until recent days because horse meat is not dangerous to eat — the chances of detection are remote.