Australia Markets open in 7 hrs 16 mins

Horse meat fraud scandal spreads across Europe

Danny Kemp
A man poses holding a Findus beef lasagne frozen ready meal near Sunderland on February 8, 2013. Findus UK says it is taking legal advice after early results from its internal investigation "strongly suggest" that the presence of horsemeat in its frozen beef lasagne meals was "not accidental".

A Europe-wide food fraud scandal over horsemeat sold as beef deepened Saturday as Romania announced an inquiry into the origin of the meat and suspicions of criminal activity mounted.

Frozen foods giant Findus initiated legal action and said the contamination appeared to be "not accidental", while a French meat-processing firm at the centre of the outrage also said it would sue its Romanian supplier.

British authorities announced this week that Findus frozen beef lasagne was up to 100 percent horsemeat, and equine meat has subsequently been found on the shelves in France and Sweden too.

The consumption of horsemeat is particularly taboo in Britain, whose food minister on Saturday hosted a crisis meeting of retailers and officials amid growing public concern.

"This is a conspiracy against the public. Selling a product as beef and including a lot of horse in it is fraud," said Owen Paterson, the environment, food and rural affairs secretary after the meeting.

British authorities have said they are testing to see whether the horsemeat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.

Beef lasagne sold by Findus and two own brand meals sold by pan-European supermarket Aldi were found this week to contain up to 100 percent horsemeat.

The meals were assembled by French company Comigel using meat provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France.

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

Romania's agriculture ministry said Saturday that it would launch an inquiry into shipments of meat to France after French authorities said two Romanian abattoirs were implicated in the horsemeat scandal.

"If it finds that the meat came from Romania and that the law has been broken, the culprits will be punished," the Romanian ministry said in a statement to AFP, adding however that the origin of the meat had not yet been proven.

Spanghero said it would sue the Romanian supplier on the grounds that it mislabelled the horsemeat but refused to identify the supplier or any intermediaries.

Findus also initiated legal proceedings on Saturday but did not identify an alleged culprit in a criminal complaint lodged against persons unknown with the authorities in France.

But France's junior economy minister Benoit Hamon said that Poujol, the holding company of meat-processing firm Spanghero, "acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader who had subcontracted the order to a trader located in The Netherlands, who in turn was supplied by an abattoir ... in Romania."

In London, Findus revealed that products ostensibly containing beef but actually made predominately with horsemeat could have been on sale in Britain since August 2012.

British police say they have liaised with the Food Standards Agency over the issue but have not yet launched a formal investigation.

The lasagne scandal has blown up in the wake of a similar discovery last month relating to the content of "beef" burgers in Britain and Ireland, both countries where consumers have an aversion to the idea of eating horses.

Although horsemeat is still eaten in many parts of Europe and is considered leaner and healthier than beef, food safety experts fear some unregulated meat could contain traces of a widely used veterinary painkiller, phenylbutazone, which can cause a serious blood disorder in humans in rare cases.

Comigel, which assembled the frozen lasagne, meat sauces and other dishes involved, apologised to its customers, who include Findus, Aldi and other major retailers of frozen food in 16 European countries.

The company's chairman, Erich Lehagre, said Comigel believed it was being supplied with 100 percent French beef from Spanghero.

"We are aware of the very strong feelings this has given rise to, particularly in Britain," he told AFP.

Spanghero's chairman, Barthelemy Aguerre, told AFP: "We bought European origin beef and we resold it. If it really is horsemeat, we are going to go after the Romanian supplier."

Spanghero was established by two former rugby players, Claude and Laurent Spanghero, in the 1970s and initially had a reputation as a producer of high-quality local products including cassoulet, a celebrated stew of various meats and beans in a rich tomato sauce.

The rugbymen were bought out in 2009 by Lur Berri, a Basque agricultural cooperative, and the company now targets a lower end of the market.