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Horsemeat scandal spreads across Europe

Date
Widespread ... a Europe-wide food fraud scandal over horsemeat sold as beef deepens.

Widespread ... a Europe-wide food fraud scandal over horsemeat sold as beef deepens. Photo: AFP

The Europe-wide scandal over horsemeat sold as beef has spread as leading French retailers pulled products from their shelves and France promised to have the results of an inquiry within days.

As the Nordic branch of frozen food giant Findus said it planned to sue a French producer and its suppliers over the scandal, Britain ruled out imposing a ban on importing meat from EU countries despite a call from a senior MP.

Several ranges of prepared food have been withdrawn in Britain, France and Sweden after it emerged that frozen food companies had been using horsemeat instead of beef in making lasagnes and other pasta dishes, shepherd's pies and moussakas.

Highlighting the complexity of European food supply chains, the meat has been traced back from France through Cyprus and the Netherlands to Romanian abattoirs. Romanian officials have also announced an urgent inquiry.

French retailers Auchan, Casino, Carrefour, Cora, Monoprix and Picard announced on Sunday they were withdrawing products provided by Findus and French producer Comigel over the horsemeat concerns.

The retailers said the withdrawal was the result of "labelling non-compliance in regards to the nature of the meat" in the products.

Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said French authorities would have the preliminary results of their inquiry into the scandal by Wednesday.

Hamon also told Le Parisien newspaper that the authorities "will not hesitate" to take legal action if there is evidence that companies were knowingly duping consumers.

Findus has said it will lodge a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horsemeat in its supply chain "was not accidental" and its Nordic branch said on Sunday it planned to sue Comigel and its suppliers.

"This is a breach of contract and fraud," said the head of Findus Nordic, Jari Latvanen.

"Such behaviour on the part of a supplier is unacceptable," he added, saying the meat in its products was supposed to be beef of French, German or Austrian origin.

In Britain, where tests found that some frozen ready meals produced in mainland Europe and labelled as processed beef actually contained up to 100 per cent horsemeat, food minister Owen Paterson dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat imports.

"Arbitrary measures like that are not actually going to help. Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market," he said on Sky News television, describing the idea as a "panic measure".

But he warned that the government would not hesitate to impose a ban if public health was at risk.

"Should this move from an issue of labelling and fraud, and there is evidence of material which represents a serious threat to human health, I won't hesitate to take action," Paterson said.

Paterson said he feared there could be a "criminal conspiracy" afoot, while the British press was full of lurid speculation that organised crime groups were at the root of the scandal.

Anne McIntosh, the head of the British parliament's food affairs scrutiny panel, had called for the ban, saying a moratorium was needed until "we can trace the source of the contamination and until we can establish whether there has been fraud".

The scandal has had particular resonance in Britain, where eating horsemeat is considered taboo. British authorities have also said they are testing to see whether the horsemeat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.

The Findus meals were assembled by Comigel using meat that was provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France. Comigel supplies products to companies in 16 European countries.

Spanghero in turn is said to have obtained the meat from Romania via a Cypriot dealer who had subcontracted the deal to a trader in The Netherlands.

A Romanian food industry official pointed the finger of blame at the French importer, saying it was up to that company to verify the quality of the meat.

Hamon defended France's food safety checks, saying the system relies on producers and importers to properly identify their meat.

AFP

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