Auditors search N. Ireland's coldstores for illicit health marks

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Euro freeze, European union, Republic of ireland, United kingdom

Northern Ireland's coldstores are all due to get a visit from Meat
Hygiene Service (MHS) auditors, as the investigation into Euro
Freeze and the use of illicit health certifications continues.

The main focus will be on whether product bearing illicit health marks is present in any of those coldstores, the UK's Food Standards Authority said yesterday.

The widening EU investigation into Euro Freeze and the hunt for meat products allegedly marked with the illicit certifications throughout the bloc emphasises the increasing role of regulations on the traceability of foods throughout companies' supply and distribution chains.

Jon Bell, the FSA's chief executive said the ongoing investigation into Euro Freeze (Ireland) has led to concerns about possible problems with the operation and supervision of coldstores in Northern Ireland.

"It is important that we do not wait until the investigation is complete before establishing whether the system is largely working well or whether there are more widespread grounds for concern,"​ Bell stated.

He added: "This investigation may offer reassurance, or it may identify areas for remedial action. Either way, it is important that there is external scrutiny of the system and we identify any specific issues where action may need to be taken."

He had stated last week 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 Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (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.

Two teams of eight MHS auditors are starting work yesterday and over the next five working days will visit all 37 licensed coldstores in Northern Ireland.

The MHS will report back to the FSA on its findings and any areas identified for improvement or action.

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.

The focus of the enquiry is on repackaging, re-labelling and distribution of meat. Investigators have been examining evidence obtained from the coldstore including paper and computer records.

Local food safety authorities have been charged with contacting companies that have received Euro Freeze product to establish whether any items have illicit health markings. Suspect product is being detained for further investigation. The local authorities are also tracing product that has been sold on to other businesses.

Investigators are also attempting to trace back the products in the Euro Freeze coldstore to their source, to assess whether the product has come from legitimate sources and has been handled correctly, the FSA stated.

"The evidence uncovered so far has identified wide ranging distribution of Euro Freeze (Ireland) Ltd product, some of which is likely to be legitimate, other of which could be suspect,"​ the FSA alleges. "The distribution includes the UK and other member states of the European Union."

The exports include beef, poultry and pork products. Officials from the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) last week joined in the hunt for the meat. Last week EU officials wrapped up visits to the FSA and DARD. FVO officials also visited official in Ireland to cover cross-border issues.

Bell said said 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 products of animal origin legislation.

The FSA believes the chicken originated from China, for importation into Northern Ireland via Greece. The meat was allegedly destined for Euro Freeze's coldstore. DARD officials subsequently destroyed all of the meat on animal health grounds.

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 company remains closed.

Morris McAllister, Director, Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland said: 'This is a complex and on-going investigation. Large amounts of evidence are being scrutinised and as soon as we obtain useful information it is being shared with local authorities, the European Commission and others who can assist with tracking down suspect product."

The regulators said no specific food safety issues have been identified in relation to any particular products.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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