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Last updated: February 11, 2013 12:03 pm
French ministers and food industry chiefs are to hold an emergency meeting on Monday over the horsemeat scandal that is spreading across Europe.
Stephane Le Foll, the French agriculture minister, said the results of an investigation by the country’s anti-fraud agency into the origins of the horsemeat, disguised as beef and sold in frozen food in a number of countries, would be released on Wednesday. However, the complexity of trading between wholesalers made pinpointing the source difficult.
The Romanian horsemeat used in French-supplied frozen “beef” products “appeared to be a case of fraud”, France’s consumer affairs minister has said, as the horsemeat scandal that erupted in Britain reverberated across the continent.
This weekend, France’s biggest supermarket chains removed more of their own-label and Findus-branded processed dishes from their shelves. Carrefour, Casino, Auchan and Monoprix were among the store chains pulling a range of lasagne, moussaka, spaghetti bolognaise, cannelloni and cottage pie products on Sunday. Late last week, some Findus lasagne products tested in the UK were found to contain more than 60 per cent horsemeat.
Investigations have revealed a tortuous supply chain spanning several countries, with the companies involved scrambling to shift the blame away from themselves.
Owen Paterson, the UK’s environment secretary, was due to update parliament on the scandal, which he described as a “fraud and a conspiracy against the public”.
On Sunday, Benoît Hamon, France’s consumer affairs minister, said the Romanian horsemeat used in French-supplied frozen “beef” products “appeared to be a case of fraud”. At the very least, he said, imported meat had been relabelled without proper controls.
But he told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche: “We have estimated a profit from what seems to be a fraud of around €300,000. Which leads us to think this has been going on for several months. Since August, it appears.” The government said it would hold an emergency meeting with the French meat industry on Monday.
Findus was supplied by a company based in northeastern France called Comigel, which makes similar products for food suppliers and retailers in 16 countries. The Findus products revealed to contain horsemeat in the UK came from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg. Comigel in turn was supplied with meat from a company in southwestern France called Spanghero, whose parent is called Poujol.
Mr Hamon, who warned that more products could turn out to be tainted, said in a statement on Saturday that Poujol “acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader, which had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands. The latter was supplier from an abattoir and butcher located in Romania.”
UK: Horsemeat is found in lasagne made by the frozen food company Findus. The Food Standards Agency says that some of the samples it tested consisted of between 60 and 100 per cent horsemeat.
Luxembourg: Findus was supplied by Comigel, based in northeast France, which makes similar products for food suppliers and retailers in 16 countries. The products containing horse come from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg.
France: The Comigel factory was supplied with meat from a company in southwestern France called Spanghero, whose parent company is Poujol.
Cyprus/The Netherlands: Poujol “acquired the meat from a Cypriot trader, which had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands”, according toBenoît Hamonn, France’s minister in charge of consumer affairs.
Romania: The Cypriot trader was supplied from an abattoir and butcher in Romania, whose food standards agency told the BBC “we have more than 25 abattoirs authorised not only to butcher horsemeat but also to export it within the EU”.
He said a key issue was whether Spanghero “knew that it was buying horsemeat or if it was deceived”.
Daniel Constantin, the Romanian agriculture minister, said on Saturday that an inquiry had been opened, adding that the French authorities had indicated suspicions about two Romanian abattoirs, although he said one was excluded as it did not export horsemeat.
Constantin Savu, Romania’s National Sanitary Veterinary and Food Safety Authority representative, told the BBC: “As far as we know there was horsemeat provided from Romania, but this doesn’t raise any problem, because we have more than 25 abattoirs authorised not only to butcher horsemeat but also to export it within the EU.”
He said authorised veterinarians certified the slaughtering process and stamped the meat. “There is no problem with the fact that we export the horsemeat but we cannot know what happens to it on its way to export, after it exits the abattoir,” he said.
Sorin Minea, head of Romalimenta, the Romanian food industry federation, said he was convinced that importers would have known the meat was not beef, since horsemeat has a “specific taste, colour and texture”.
Barthelemy Aguerre, head of Spanghero, insisted the horsemeat in question had been labelled as beef. “If it was indeed horsemeat, we will take it up with the Romanian supplier,” he said, threatening legal action.
Matthieu Lambeaux, head of Findus in France, said the company had been tricked and would file a lawsuit on Monday against an unnamed party for fraud.
“We thought we had certified French beef in our products. But in reality, we were supplied with Romanian horsemeat. We have been deceived,” he said.
Jose Bove, the French green activist and vice-president of the European parliament’s agriculture committee, said a move to ban horses from the roads in Romania last year had led to a glut of horsemeat. He said he did not exclude “mafia scheming”. “Something has been orchestrated,” he said, calling for an investigation by Olaf, the European Commission’s anti-fraud agency.
Additional reporting by Neil Buckley in London
Recession lifts chances of food contamination
The recession has increased contaminated meat risks, experts have warned, as cost-cutting has driven British consumers to low-cost ready meals while checks made on meat provenance have been cut back, writes Rob Budden.
“Since the recession in 2008 there has been a drive for affordable food” said Dr Louise Manning, senior lecturer in food production management at the Royal Agricultural College, resulting in bigger supply chains.
“The challenge is that as the supply chain becomes bigger and bigger then consumers have to rely on trust,” she said.
Budgets for trading standards and environmental health, meanwhile, have been cut by 32 per cent in real terms per person since 2009, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the independent economic research body. And since the BSE crisis in the 1990s, the meat inspection workforce under the Food Standards Agency has more than halved to 800, according to Ben Priestley, national officer for Unison, the trade union.
Dr Manning said that human error or fraud were behind the latest incidences of high percentages of horsemeat in beef ready meals.
“Food fraud is a fact,” she said, arguing that the bigger the supply chain, the greater the uncertainty for consumers.
“We have a truly global supply chain,” she said. “With chicken products most of the meat comes from Thailand. If you buy ready meals the meat could come from Asia or Brazil.”
In response to the growing revelations of horsemeat in beef ready meals, affected supermarkets have withdrawn beef products containing horsemeat and introduced new tests for horsemeat DNA.
Tesco said it was introducing a comprehensive DNA testing system across all its meat products.
Aldi said it had identified horsemeat contamination of between 30 and 100 per cent in its Today’s Special frozen beef lasagne and spaghetti bolognese. Both have been removed from the shelves and the supermarket chain said it would no longer be working with the supplier of these meals, French group Comigel.
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