- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 16, 2013

DUBLIN — An Irish meat processor recalled 10 million burgers Wednesday from supermarkets across Ireland and Britain amid fears that many could contain horse meat, a discovery that poses no danger to public health but threatens to undermine the beef business central to Ireland’s rural economy.

Silvercrest Foods, Ireland’s second-largest processor of beef burgers, took the action after the Food Safety Authority of Ireland revealed that DNA tests of patties on sale found tiny traces of horse meat in more than a third.

Specialists said the finding was not surprising, given that meat refrigeration units and slaughterhouses would handle multiple kinds of meat and molecular transfers were inevitable.

Investigators were surprised to find that one burger among 27 tested contained 29 percent horse meat.

Tesco, the British supermarket giant that sold the discount burger brand in question, apologized and said either fraud or incompetence was to blame.

Silvercrest and government leaders suspect the horse meat might have been contained in a powdered beef-protein additive imported from both Spain and the Netherlands for use in padding out the most cheaply priced Irish burgers, which contain typically 60 percent to 70 percent meat.

They declined to identify either supplier by name because investigations are continuing, and a multimillion lawsuit for damages is likely.

“There is a full investigation going on as to how the imported additives got into the system and where they came from. This is very important for Ireland’s reputation,” Prime Minister Enda Kenny told reporters at a European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, France.

Health authorities credited Ireland’s policy of occasionally testing the DNA in food, given that most countries check only after a health threat.

They said such testing, if repeated worldwide, would likely find much more widespread mislabeling of meat and fish products and traces of the “wrong” meats in processed foods.

In 2011, for example, a DNA study by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that three-quarters of fish labeled as cod in Irish fast-food outlets was actually one of several more cheaply sourced fishes, including pollock, hake or haddock.

Some said the discovery of the horse meat suggests possible consumer fraud because horse meat costs less than a third of its cattle beef equivalent.

Ireland is a major meat exporter to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Beef production provides the bedrock for rural life.

The Irish government has imposed stern measures to minimize the damage from three previous food-safety scares, culling whole herds to reverse the spread of mad cow disease in the 1990s and block the arrival of foot-and-mouth disease in sheep from Britain in 2001.

In 2008, an investigation into the country’s approximately 400 pig farms found surprisingly high levels of cancer-causing dioxins in pigs at about 10 farms. Ireland recalled all of its pork products worldwide, costing the industry some $650 million in lost trade.

The horse-meat revelations are expected to cause much less damage to Ireland, in part because much of Europe happily consumes horses as a delicacy.

In France, where some butcher’s shops specialize in horse steaks best served tartare, the Irish probe merited a Gallic shrug.

“The Irish are known for their respect of the horse, and they’re not used to eating horses,” the French newspaper Le Figaro explained Wednesday to its readers.

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