The onus of compliance with EU food safety regulations, including traceability requirements, rests in the first instance with food business operators. My Department maintains a permanent presence in approved slaughter plants. Regular visits are made to other Department approved meat plants. The frequency of these inspections in plants other than slaughter plants, which focus primarily on food safety requirements, is determined by a risk assessment, as required under EU legislation, which is conducted for each plant. My Department has been able to reduce the number of inspections at non-slaughter meat plants, where there is no permanent supervisory presence, by moving to a more robust and rigorous targeted system of official controls, based on the risk assessments mentioned above. Official controls and inspections levels are monitored independently by the EU Food and Veterinary Office and by the FSAI under service contract.
Food business operators in Ireland are responsible inter alia for carrying out checks to ensure that their ingredients come from approved plants. In meat plants that operate under the supervision of the Department, official controls are conducted on these checks to verify their effectiveness. An annual audit of imported products is carried out in each Department approved meat plant. The audit includes physical identity, labelling and documentary checks. This includes product originating both in EU Member States and third countries. Labelling and documentary checks also form part of the routine checks conducted by Department officials.
Under the Department’s National Residue Programme, and including tests on bovine samples carried out by processors, up to 30,000 samples taken at farm and factory level and covering a wide range of food stuffs are tested annually. These tests relate to microbiological and chemical standards, their primary focus being on food safety. These are fully in accordance with EU testing requirements.
In addition the Product Official Sampling and Testing (POST) programme is a microbiological testing programme on samples taken from Department approved ready-to-eat food, meat product, minced meat and meat preparation plants i.e. added value plants. This is part of the official verification of food safety controls in the plants concerned as provided for in Regulations (EC) 852/2004, 854/2004 and 2073/2005. A total of 1,600 samples are taken annually and the sampling and testing is risk based.
The number of inspections has not been found to be inadequate as compliance with existing food safety and food hygiene requirements was not an issue in relation to the mislabelling of meat products uncovered by the recent FSAI survey. It is clear however that the focus of checks henceforth will also need to include food authenticity and the EU wide programme of DNA testing recently agreed will provide the basis for consideration of future action in this respect.
In the meantime, in the light of recent developments, officials from my Department and the FSAI met with the meat processing sector on 14th February to agree a national protocol for DNA testing of meat to be applied at retail, catering and processing level in Ireland. This testing will provide further reassurance to Irish consumers and consumers of Irish food abroad about the authenticity of ingredients in our meat based products. DNA testing will apply from now on as part of routine food testing across the country. The following categories of food are being tested – pre-packaged beef products on sale to the final consumer or to mass caterers, beef products offered for sale without pre-packaging to consumers or to mass caterers and meat ingredients used in processed beef products.