Never accept meat from strangers. That seems to be the lesson of the horsemeat scandal – at least for the ex-commercial director of Freeza Meats. In September 2012, an Environment Health Officer arrived to inspect their meat stores. Discovering a large block of meat in one of their freezers, the officer decided to quarantine it. When the meat was tested for equine DNA, the meat was discovered to be 80% horse.
And thus the mysterious case of the frozen horsemeat began. James Fairbairn, the commercial director at the time, appeared in front of the Efra select committee yesterday in a bid to explain things. In August, so his story goes, a meat trader named Martin McAdam, who owned McAdam Foods, tried to sell Freeza a ‘consignment of beef’, which they declined. But, as McAdam had no cold store, they agreed to store it for him on ‘a temporary basis’ over the weekend, at no charge as a ‘goodwill gesture’.
But unfortunately for Freeza, the gesture appears to have backfired. The meat –whose source was only revealed upon its arrival at the company HQ - turned out to have come from Poland and was badly wrapped, with ‘beef exposed and sitting on dirty wooden pallets’.
‘Didn’t this raise any issues with hygiene to you?’ mused Anne McAlpine, the committee chair. It did, said Fairbairn, so they re-wrapped it and isolated it. They then rang McAdam - the meat owners – to inform them of its ‘state and the nature of it’. He asked to hang onto it while he sought a credit note. So they ‘put it to one side, and waited for him to collect it’. It was supposed to be there for a week, but was still there a fortnight later when ‘the local EHO officer turned up… and said: “There’s no way that’s going into the food chain”’. Detained by the EHO, the meat stayed in Freeza’s coldstore until the 19th January when, as Fairbairn put it, ‘the horse bolted from Silvercrest’ – in other words, when equine DNA was found in Silvercrest food’s meat supplies, and all hell broke loose.
So why was the meat detained for five months? ‘Don’t ask me’, said Fairbairn. ‘For the life of me I cannot understand why that product was left in that store for five months.’
‘But it was your store!’ responded McAlpine, somewhat bemused.
Perhaps it was being kept as a hostage by the FSA, suggested Barry Gardiner, a Labour Efra member. An odd suggestion, but in this story, almost anything goes.
So what happened? In Fairbairn’s opinion, a whistleblower must have alerted the Irish FSA to the horse meat entering the food chain, since the inspectors ‘went straight to Silvercrest’. Why else would they check for horse? ‘Why didn’t they try for seagulls or something’, he wondered.
A good question indeed. But allowing McAdams to store that meat in the freezer turns out to have been an expensive decision – one that resulted in a £2.5 million lost contract, and 31 jobs being cut at Freeza. So what has Fairbairn – and the meat industry - learnt from the scandal? ‘Don’t do favours for anyone’, he answered.