The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) investigation was sparked by a series of EU-wide alerts issued by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) about the circulation of allegedly illegal meat products from a coldstore in Northern Ireland.
The widening EU investigation and the hunt for the products throughout the bloc emphasises the increasing role of regulations on the traceability of foods throughout companies' supply and distribution chains.
The FSAI yesterday alleged it had discovered sheets of self adhesive labels with illicit health marks at an M & N Meats plant. The regulator said its inspectors also searched the premises of D'Arcy Food and removed records from the premises for further examination.
"To date, one consignment of beef with suspect health marks has been detained and is being inspected," the FSAI stated.
The FSAI's investigation follows information from the FSA's Northern Ireland unit relating to its ongoing probe of Euro Freeze (Ireland) Ltd.
A health mark is an official mark stamped either directly on the surface of meat or on the label of packaged meat that indicates the meat has undergone the correct inspection and is compliant with relevant EU food law. The stamp contains the country of origin and the official number of the slaughter or cutting plant.
The UK's FSA launched an investigation into Euro Freeze earlier last month after a raid at the company's cold storage operations in Lisnaskea. The FSA shut the company's operations down and sent out a series of EU-wide safety alerts calling for companies to check the status of their products originating from Euro Freeze.
Officials from the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) this week joined in the hunt for the meat. EU officials this week wrapped up visits to the FSA and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). FVO officials also visited official in Ireland to cover cross-border issues.
The outcome of the investigation was discussed in Brussels yesterday at a meeting of officials from the Commission and member states that might have received the suspect meat.
FSA chief executive Jon Bell said yesterday that the Euro Freeze investigation was sparked off in August after food regulators in Northern Ireland seized a consignment of chicken at a Belfast port. The seizure was made under the the products of animal origin legislation.
Bell said the FSA believes the chicken originated from China and was allegedly destined for the Euro Freeze's coldstore. DARD officials subsequently destroyed all of the meat on animal health grounds, he said in his presentation before the FSA's board members.
DARD officials raided Euro Freeze on 9 November and shut the coldstore operation down after alleging they found evidence about the possible use of illicit health marks. A large quantity of meat was detained. Inspectors also found legitimately marked products, which has since been released for human consumption after being checked.
DARD also removed documents and computers from the premises.
'The focus of this complex investigation has been on the re-packaging, re-labelling and distribution of meat and on identifying the source of product," Bell said.
Bell also announced that the FSA's system of inspecting food manufacturers in Northern Ireland is under review. The supervision of cold storage operations is normally undertaken by DARD veterinary inspectors acting on behalf of the FSA.
"It is certainly the case that possible issues have been identified in relation to the operation and supervision of coldstores in Northern Ireland," he said.