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Last updated: January 18, 2013 8:53 pm
The Irish beef baron at the centre of the scandal over horse meat in burgers has said cost cutting by his company was not to blame for the contamination.
In his first interview in almost 25 years, Larry Goodman, founder and executive chairman of ABP Food Group, questioned the validity of DNA tests on his burgers by regulators and criticised tabloid sensationalisation of the issue.
“We are talking about DNA testing and DNA will pick up molecules and something in the air,” he said. “I would not be surprised if there was not cross contamination of various species if one were to do DNA testing.”
When asked about the media coverage, Mr Goodman said he was “disgusted with some of the things that I see”.
Mr Goodman said the company had never bought or traded in horse meat and he suspected the contamination came from a hamburger filler product sourced from a supplier on the Continent. “We have been let down,” he said.
He said there was intense pressure from retailers on cost, but this did not mean ABP Food Group used inferior products.
The company said it had “temporarily suspended” production at its Silvercrest plant in Co Monaghan, which is a supplier to Tesco and Burger King, following the disclosure by food safety authorities in Ireland that a second batch of tests had uncovered further contamination of burgers with horse meat.
Nine out of 13 burgers from the plant tested positive for traces of horse meat in a new set of DNA tests. Earlier this week, a Tesco Everyday Value burger made at the Silvercrest plant was found to contain 29 per cent horse meat when tested.
Mr Goodman said there was no health problem associated with traces of horse meat found in the burgers, but he said he understood why there was genuine public concern.
“People are psychologically concerned about the sort of animal they are eating and rightly so. Kids see them [horses] as pets,” he said.
Mr Goodman is a controversial figure in Ireland, where he became embroiled in a government appointed tribunal inquiring into tax evasion and malpractice in the beef industry in the early 1990s.
“The tribunal was politically motivated and competitor motivated,” he told the FT.
A non drinker and a non smoker with a penchant for the music of Neil Diamond, Mr Goodman started in business following a falling out with his father, who exported cattle to the UK. Mr Goodman junior now controls Europe’s biggest beef exporter with a turnover of €2.5bn.
Mr Goodman rose to prominence in the 1970s and nurtured powerful political connections, including Charles Haughey, the disgraced former Taoiseach. He was a key financial supporter of the Fianna Fáil party, donating IR£100,000 during the general election campaign in 1987.
Mr Goodman’s company began exporting to Africa and the Middle East in the late 1970s. During the Iran/Iraq war he benefited from state export credit guarantees, which helped it to become a big beef exporter to Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein.
Following a change of Irish government in 1989, however, the credit insurance scheme was cancelled, and when Iraq invaded Kuwait the following year Mr Goodman’s empire collapsed under debts related to its Iraq beef deal.
In August 1990, the government passed new legislation which saved his company. Mr Goodman says the government acted to save the wider beef industry and farmers, not himself.
Asked whether he bought political influence through donations his companies made to political parties in the 1980s, he replied: “All our bank accounts were trawled and we had provided funds to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We didn’t provide funds to the leftwing parties and that didn’t stand us in good stead. Wiser people choose to distribute their payment to all political parties.”
Today Mr Goodman remains the undisputed king of Ireland’s meat magnates. He lives on a 700 acre estate in Co Louth and drives a Bentley. But he faces a significant challenge in rebuilding ABP Food Group’s reputation following a scandal that has forced retailers to pull 10m beef burgers off their shelves.
“He is a Lazarus-type, a tough street fighter who managed to claw himself back from the brink,” said one Dublin-based financier, who did not want to be named. “He won’t go quietly,” he said.
Said Elaine Byrne, an academic and author: “Larry Goodman is Ireland’s J.R. Ewing and beef is Ireland’s oil.”
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