“Be at the center,” is the motto of the Irish town of Ballybay. As the scandal over horse meat masquerading as beef gallops across Europe, its founders may not have realized how true that would turn out.
An inspection last month found frozen hamburgers made by Silvercrest Foods, the town’s biggest employer, contained 29 percent horse meat. Production was halted and Tesco Plc, the U.K.’s largest retailer, dropped Silvercrest as a supplier.
“This is just a small place and now people from all over are associating the area with horse meat,” said Evelyn Steen, standing on her farm in Ballybay as she prepared to tend her 40 cattle. “We’re very annoyed by it all. It’s terrible.”
As the scope of the contamination unfolds, the global and opaque nature of the food chain is being exposed to European consumers like never before. The U.K. Food Standards Agency raided meat plants in West Yorkshire and Wales yesterday as part of the investigation. Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said the scandal is a Europe-wide issue involving fraud.
Six French supermarket companies including Carrefour SA withdrew some products made by Findus Group Ltd. this week after tests showed some beef lasagna included horse meat. Tesco apologized to customers on Feb. 11 after finding horse DNA in its discount spaghetti Bolognese the company said was made in a factory that also produced foods for Findus.
“It highlights the fragility of the international supply chain,” said Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail in London. “The mind boggles at the complexity of it all.”
The horse traces in the foods Silvercrest had been shipping is linked to raw material imported from Poland, the Irish government said. The Findus ready meals labeled as beef-based and containing horse were manufactured at a Luxembourg factory owned by French company Comigel, France’s consumer and anti-fraud office DGCCRF reported on Feb. 9.
Comigel’s meat supplier was Spanghero SAS. It had bought the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader that in turn sub-contracted a Dutch trader who sourced the meat from a slaughterhouse and a meat packer in Romania, according to the DGCCRF. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has said there was no evidence of wrongdoing at Romanian companies.
“As time goes on, the more obvious is that this is a European problem that involves a whole series of countries,” Coveney told broadcaster RTE yesterday. “It was because of the vigilance of our testing and control regime in Ireland that what is now a pan European problem was exposed.”
Meanwhile, for the 1,000 or so residents in Ballybay, County Monaghan, close to the border with Northern Ireland, the attention has been as surprising as it has been unwelcome.
In a past life, Ballybay was a horse trading center. During the First World War, a local family produced as many as 300 horses a week, much of them sold to the British Army, and the town thrived as blacksmiths, saddle and harness makers moved to the area, according to the town’s website.
Yet the 18th century town became known more as a center of the Irish linen industry, and now is more of stop-off point for bird watchers drawn to the local lakes. One resident at least reckons he may benefit from the horse-meat scandal.
“We’ve been here 30 years,” said Ciaran Traynor, 46, a butcher at Quinn’s shop on Ballybay’s main street. “People here know where our beef comes from, that it is what we say it is and they trust us. It could be good for us.”
Ireland’s food safety authority found horse DNA in the Silvercrest frozen beef burgers on Jan. 15. The company’s parent, County Louth-based ABP, suspended all production at the facility two days later. The investigation is continuing.
A second meat plant in county Monaghan was found to have traces of horse in some of its products, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on Feb. 5.
The Silvercrest plant with its painted steel sits opposite a graveyard at the northern-edge of Ballybay overlooking the town’s main street. A spokeswoman for ABP declined to comment on the future of the facility, which employs 112 people.
A few hundred yards away, Latvian immigrant Artis Alksnis leans against the wall of his barber’s shop smoking a cigarette. He opened the business a few months ago.
“When I heard this, I thought maybe it was a joke about the horse meat,” said Alksnis. “But it’s no joke. We rely on that factory. It employs a lot of people. Business is quiet already, if it stops, it will be very bad for the town. People will think it is a horse-meat town.”