Lawyers called in as horsemeat fraud scandal deepens
A Europe-wide food fraud scandal deepened Saturday as supicions of criminal involvement mounted and the exact origin of horsemeat sold as beef in frozen dishes remained a mystery.
The French meat-processing company at the centre of the scandal said it would sue a Romanian supplier it claims mislabelled the horsemeat that has been found on the shelves in at least three countries.
But the company, Spanghero, refused to identify the Romanian supplier or any intermediaries involved in the supply chain, and failed to offer any explanation as to why it allegedly resold the meat as 100 percent French beef.
Findus also initiated legal proceedings on Saturday, although the Swedish frozen foods giant did not identify an alleged culprit in a criminal complaint lodged against persons unknown with the authorities in France.
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.
The uncertainty over the exact origin of the horsemeat ensured the possibility of a threat to human health remained.
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 pain killer that is dangerous for humans.
Britain's government was examining whether the scandal was the result of a criminal conspiracy and a serious fraud investigation was underway in France.
"We have a real problem," said British Food Minister Owen Paterson. "There are very significant amounts of horsemeat in products marked as processed beef. That is totally unacceptable."
He added: "It may be incompetence; I fear it's actually probably an international criminal conspiracy and I'm completely determined to get to the bottom of it."
Findus UK said it was 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".
France's agriculture minister warned that companies found to have knowingly misled consumers would be "severely punished."
Cogimel, the French company which assembled the frozen lasagne, meat sauces and other dishes involved, apologised to its customers, who include Findus, pan-European supermarket Aldi and other major retailers of frozen food in 16 European countries.
"We are aware of the very strong feelings this has given rise to, particularly in Britain," the company's chairman, Erich Lehagre, told AFP.
Comigel products have been removed from the shelves in Britain, France and Sweden.
According to Lehagre, Comigel believed it was being supplied with 100 percent French beef from Spanghero, which is a subsidiary of Lur Berri, a Basque agricultural cooperative.
The group has 5,000 farm suppliers and turnover in excess of one billion euros, having grown quickly in recent years by diversifying into food processing.
"We bought European origin beef and we resold it. If it really is horsemeat, we are going to go after the Romanian supplier," Spanghero's chairman, Barthelemy Aguerre, told AFP.
Romanian food industry professionals cast doubt on Spanghero's defence.
"I am certain the importer knew it wasn't beef, because horsemeat has a specific taste, colour and texture," said Sorin Minea, the chairman of Romalimenta, a Romanian food industry group. He said there were three horse-slaughtering abattoirs in Romania which exported to France, Italy and other EU countries.
Minea said importers usually carry out tests to check the meat quality, "but to determine the type of meat you have to carry out a specific test and that's only done if there's a particular suspicion."
Lehagre said Comigel, which produces its frozen products in Luxembourg but is based in Metz, France, had notified British and French authorities as soon as he had become aware of the problem.
Local food safety officials say the company handled the discovery of horsemeat appropriately but questions are now being asked as to why Findus and Aldi did not immediately order product recalls.
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 in a region renowned for its rustic cuisine, typified by cassoulet, a celebrated stew of various meats and beans in a rich tomato sauce.
The rugbymen were bought out in 2009 by Lur Berri and the company now targets a lower end of the market.
If the company is found to have misled Comigel, its directors could face criminal proceedings.
"All fraud constitutes an offence that undermines confidence in the entire food chain and has to be severely punished," French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll warned.
"It cannot be acceptable to sell a product pretending to include ingredients that are not what the consumer finds on his plate."
Although the scare appeared to have been confined to Britain, France and Sweden, extensive testing of frozen food samples was underway in many other countries with the primary focus being the search for traces of the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, which can cause a serious blood disorder to humans in rare cases.
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.
The burger scandal was linked to a severe recession in Ireland which resulted in a country that is passionate about racing and riding for leisure sending thousands of horses to slaughter.
Abundant supply issues and the resulting fall in prices may lie behind the current crisis as well with Romania reported to have seen a surge in horse slaughter since horse-drawn carts were banned from main roads.
© 2013 AFP