France has pinned much of the blame for Europe’s horse scandal on a French firm that allegedly sold 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef that ended up in millions of ready-to-eat meals sold across the continent.
The move came on Thursday as police in Britain arrested three men suspected of passing horse off as beef, and as Germany joined the ranks of countries where frozen “beef” lasagne was found to contain horsemeat. The Dutch government’s food and consumer watchdog has also searched and carried out tests for horsemeat at around 100 businesses, as Europe’s tainted beef scandal deepens.
In a sign of the damage the scandal has done to consumer confidence, 11 major food retailers and suppliers issued a public letter in Britain on Friday saying they shared people’s “anger and outrage” and were “working around the clock” to identify what has gone wrong.
Evidence of horsemeat has until now been confined to frozen products, but Asda supermarket in Britain announced on Thursday it had pulled a fresh beef bolognese sauce from the shelves after tests revealed it contained horse DNA.
The French government threw some light on that question when it presented the results of an investigation that pinned much of the blame on Spanghero, a meat-processing firm in the southwestern town of Castelnaudary.
The findings by the Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Repression of Fraud, presented by French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon, are staggering.
It said Spanghero had knowingly sold 750 tonnes of horsemeat mislabeled as beef over a period of six months, 500 tonnes of which were sent to French firm Comigel, which makes frozen meals at its Tavola factory in Luxembourg.
The minister told reporters that Comigel, which supplied millions of ready-to-eat meals to supermarkets across Europe which have now removed them from their shelves, had been deceived by Spanghero.
However, he said that Comigel had failed to carry out tests or properly inspect paperwork that would have alerted it to the scam.
He added that Romanian abattoirs named in the affair appeared to have acted in good faith.
Spanghero on Thursday again denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement that it had never ordered, received or resold any meat that it did not believe to be beef.
In Britain, where unlike continental European countries eating horse is taboo, police said three men suspected of passing horsemeat off as beef were arrested on Thursday on suspicion of fraud.
Both the processing plant and the slaughterhouse were shut down by Britain’s Food Standards Agency on Wednesday. They are the first plants in Britain accused of selling horsemeat labeled as beef.
Concerns about horsemeat first emerged last month when Irish authorities found traces of horse in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains.
Since then retailers in Britain, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands have removed Comigel products.
Two supermarket chains in Germany said on Thursday that they had found traces of horsemeat in frozen lasagne that they had pulled as a precautionary measure off their shelves last week.
After emergency talks in Brussels on Wednesday, the EU’s health commissioner Tonio Borg said the block was calling on all of its 27 member states to carry out DNA tests on beef products.