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Horsemeat scandal: Dept refuses to release over 200 pages of emails with FSAI

The Department of Agriculture refused to release over a hundred pages of emails between it and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland following a Freedom of Information request.

Image: Neil T via Flickr/Creative Commons

THE DEPARTMENT OF Agriculture has refused to release hundreds of pages of emails detailing correspondence with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) over the horsemeat scandal.

The Department refused to release a total of 144 pages of emails from 23 and 24 January with results from DNA testing carried out on meat products in the days after it was publicly revealed that equine DNA was discovered in some beef burgers.

It said releasing the information could prejudice or impair the prevention, detection or investigation of offences or any resultant prosecution. It also cited commercial reasons in that disclosure could potentially result in material financial loss or gain for the persons concerned.

In total 14 out of 24 records which the Department stated as coming under the scope of a request by TheJournal.ie were refused with seven partly-released and three records released in full.

The Department said of its decision to refuse the release of most records that “on balance, there is no public interest in releasing the records”.

It follows a Freedom of Information request by TheJournal.ie for all records and documentation related to the discovery of horse DNA in some beef burger products by the FSAI last December, a disclosure that was not made public until 15 January.

Records refused

A schedule of records for the correspondence shows that after initial email correspondence between the FSAI and the Department on 21 December – which was released in redacted form – there is no further email correspondence until 18 January.

On 18 January internal emails with a draft report for a meeting with meat plants implicated in the horsemeat controversy were circulated among officials but access to these was refused.

Three pages of emails concerning a ‘memorandum of legal advice on the horsemeat investigation’ were not released and neither were internal emails concerning draft replies to parliamentary questions.

Emails concerning press queries from RTÉ about horse passports and press queries from the Anglo Celt newspaper were not released.

In addition to this, six pages of emails from the Oireachtas to the Minister for Agriculture’s office with a draft briefing for a Dáil Topical Issues debate on equine contamination of beef were also not released.

The Department also cited the ‘deliberative process’ of a public body in its decision to refuse the release of some of its correspondence with the FSAI. Invoking ‘deliberative process’  is based on the theory that keeping the information confidential will result in government receiving better or more candid advice, recommendations and opinions and as a result it will be able to make better decisions for the greater good.

Records released

One record that was released is an email sent to the Department on 21 December 2012 from John Matthews, the Chief Specialist in Veterinary Public Health at the FSAI.

In this email he requested that officials in the Department of Agriculture carry out a sampling of meat at Silvercrest and Liffey Meats following “recent fact finding visits” to their facilities.

Both meat producers were among the first to be named when the horsemeat scandal broke in mid-January but in the email the details of the consignments that were to be tested are redacted:

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Another email discloses details of DNA analysis carried out on 27 samples of meat products by Eurofins – a laboratory in Germany – and shows that one sample had between 60 and 100 per cent porcine DNA and less than 1 per cent bovine DNA.

Most samples tested had either no issue or less than 1 per cent equine DNA.

Other emails released or partly released under Freedom of Information concern press queries from the Sunday Times, RTÉ, the Irish Examiner, the Irish Independent and the Sunday Times in relation to the horsemeat scandal.

Read: FSAI says 29 out of 634 beef products tested positive for horsemeat

Coveney: ‘I suspect this isn’t just one rogue trader, it’s broader than that’

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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