France eases ban on meat firm at heart of Europe horse scandal

The French firm that sparked a Europe-wide food scandal by allegedly passing off 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef was allowed Monday to resume production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals.

But Spanghero, whose horsemeat found its way into 4.5 million "beef" products sold across Europe, will no longer be allowed to stock frozen meat, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told AFP.

The firm's sanitary licence was suspended last Thursday after it was accused of passing off huge quantities of horsemeat as beef over a period of six months.

France's DGCCRF anti-fraud office concluded after an initial inquiry that 500 tonnes of the meat were sent to French firm Comigel, which makes frozen meals at its Tavola subsidiary in Luxembourg.

That meat was used to make 4.5 million "beef" products that were sold by Comigel to 28 different companies in 13 European states, the DGCCRF said.

Veterinary experts have been carrying out inspections at Spaghero's plant in the southwestern town of Castelnaudary, and Le Foll said the results of a full inquiry into its activities would be ready by Friday.

"At this point, 80 percent of the total meat stock has been verified, the work continues for the remaining 20 percent," he said. The criminal investigation by the DGCCRF into the wider horsemeat scandal is continuing.

Spanghero on Friday again insisted it was not responsible for the mislabelling that has seen supermarket chains across the continent pull millions of suspect food products from their shelves.

"I don't know who is behind this, but it is not us," said Spanghero boss Barthelemy Aguerre, adding that the accusations were putting his 300 workers' jobs on the line. "I will prove our innocence."

Union leaders at Spanghero had warned that revoking its licence would put the company out of business.

Concerns about horsemeat first emerged in mid-January when Irish authorities found traces of horse in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco and Aldi.

The scandal intensified earlier this month when Comigel -- a French frozen meal maker which bought 500 tonnes of mislabelled horsemeat from Spanghero -- alerted Findus to the presence of horsemeat in the meals it had made for the food giant and which were on sale in Britain.

Since then, supermarket chains have pulled millions of "beef" products off their shelves as tests are carried out to detect horsemeat, which is eaten in many European countries but is considered taboo in Britain.

Horsemeat in "beef" ready-to-eat meals has so far been confirmed in products found in Britain, France, Austria, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Most of the mislabelled products were made by Comigel.

The scandal spread on Monday to Finland, where German discount chain Lidl pulled two ready-made meals -- canned beef goulash and tortellini bolognese -- from its shelves amid fears they could contain horsemeat.

Lidl said it was also pulling the products from its shops in Sweden.

The European Union, seeking to reassure nervous consumers that their food is safe and to end the horsemeat scandal, on Friday agreed the immediate launch of tests for horse DNA in meat products.

The test programme will also look for the presence of phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory treatment for horses which is harmful to humans and is legally barred from the food chain.

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