Assembly told horsemeat fraud 'a real possibility'
Available information on contaminated meat points to fraudulent activity and to Europe, a special meeting at Stormont has heard.
Gerry McCurdy, of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), told the meeting of two NI Assembly committees that he could not be more specific.
The issue is complex, he told the health and agriculture committees.
Mr McCurdy said "fraud is a real possibility" and "some of it may be prone to legal action".
He said the "issue of horsemeat was not on our radar" until Irish authorities embarked on tests late last year.
Horse DNA was discovered at plants in Monaghan and Cavan in the Irish Republic and in Yorkshire in January.
Mr McCurdy said regulators would have had to have been specifically searching for the presence of horsemeat to have detected it.
He said some economy burgers would have "a number of species" of meat present in them.
Mr McCurdy said the FSA could not police every aspect of the food industry.
He said the results of some tests were still being awaited and there were a lot of "unanswered questions".
He reiterated it was not a food safety issue.
Mr McCurdy said there was no micro-biological risk in horsemeat contamination if cooking and hygiene are correct.
He added that no samples have yet been found of the veterinary anti-inflammatory medicine "bute" and if traces were present, the risk was low.
The FSA's Maria Jennings said it was very important for food processors to know the source of their meat.
She said it it seemed too cheap or too much of a bargain then it probably was.
Ms Jennings added that every single piece of intelligence would be followed up until they get to bottom of the scandal.
Stormont Assembly members also questioned Department of Agriculture and environmental health officials.
Robert Huey, NI's Department of Agriculture's deputy chief veterinary officer, said that he was satisfied that rumours of the illegal slaughter of horses at Northern Ireland abattoirs were not correct.
Paul Frew, chair of the agriculture committee, said it was vital to the industry that the investigation by the Food Standards Agency was "thorough, complete and timely".
"We need to shore up the industry, to make sure we defend the industry which is a very, very good one, it's very traceable from the gate to the plate.
"We need to make sure the message gets out there, that our industry is safe".
Elements of a consignment of meat at Newry firm Freeza Meats was last week found to contain about 80% horsemeat.
Freeza Meats said it had been storing the meat for a third party and that none had entered the food chain.
The quarantined meat has now been moved from Freeza Meats to an independent cold store.
The assembly members were told on Tuesday that concerns about the batch of meat were raised in September of last year, but those were about paperwork and the traceability of it.
It was decided in November that the meat should be destroyed or used in pet food.
It was not until January that a decision was made to test it for horsemeat.
DUP MLA Jim Wells said not testing samples for horsemeat until the scandal first broke in the Irish Republic was too late.
"The stable door was open, the horse had bolted," he said.
MLAs were also told that an abattoir in Lurgan, County Armagh which had been legally slaughtering horses - about 40 per fortnight - to send to the European market (primarily Italy) had now stopped, as it did not want horsemeat in any way associated with the other meat it produced.
Two days after the Freeza Meats horsemeat discovery, the FSA said tests on packs of Findus beef lasagne in Great Britain revealed that some of the products contained up to 100% horsemeat.
With each revelation, the international investigation widened across EU borders.
When details of the horsemeat contamination scandal first broke in the Republic of Ireland on 16 January, Irish food processors claimed the contaminated meat products had been supplied by companies in Poland.
However, the horsemeat lasagne had been supplied to Findus by the French food company, Comigel.
By Sunday 10 February, the Romanian government was examining the possibility that horsemeat found in beef products in Britain and France had come from an abattoir in its jurisdiction.
The supermarket chain, Asda, withdrew four frozen burger products supplied by the company as a precaution.
Meat plants in the Republic of Ireland have also been affected by the issue.
Ireland has called a meeting of EU officials from countries affected by the horsemeat scandal.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said he wants Wednesday's meeting in Brussels to discuss "whatever steps may be necessary at EU level to comprehensively address this matter".
He said the European Commission needs to be involved to find a solution.
Meanwhile, the Irish Department of Agriculture and the Food Standards Authority of Ireland (FSAI) are currently working to develop testing protocols for DNA testing at meat processors in the Republic.
It is expected to take a few weeks before the tests begin.
Mr Coveney has been in regular contact with the UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson.
Both ministers agreed that due to the close trading relationship between the two regions, the FSAI and the FSA would work to jointly agree an approach for protecting the authenticity of meat ingredients used in the manufacture of meat-based products.