Europe

Horsemeat scandal: EU ministers hold crisis talks

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Media captionNick Thorpe reports from an abattoir in Romania

Agriculture ministers from European countries linked to a widening scandal over mislabelled horsemeat have been meeting to discuss the crisis.

The emergency talks in Brussels were seeking ways to restore consumer confidence in meat products.

It follows the discovery that meat sold in up to 16 European countries labelled as beef contained horsemeat.

On Tuesday, a slaughterhouse and a meat firm were raided by police in the UK probing alleged horsemeat mislabelling.

UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said it was unacceptable if British firms were defrauding the public.

The scandal has raised questions about the complexity of the food industry's supply chains across the 27-member EU bloc, with a number of supermarket chains withdrawing frozen beef meals.

In the UK, the supermarket giant Tesco, frozen food firm Findus and budget chain Aldi received horsemeat-tainted mince from Comigel, based in northeastern France.

Horsemeat has now been confirmed in some frozen lasagne on sale in France too.

In Germany, officials announced that a shipment of frozen lasagne suspected of containing horsemeat had arrived in the country. They were notified of the delivery by authorities in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

Web of suppliers

Comigel denied wrongdoing, saying it had ordered the meat from Spanghero, a firm in southern France, via a Comigel subsidiary in Luxembourg - Tavola.

The supply chain reportedly led back to traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands, then to abattoirs in Romania.

There are now calls for more specific labelling on processed meat products in the EU, to show country of origin, as in the case of fresh meat. But the cost of doing that may trigger opposition from food manufacturers.

Romania has denied claims that it was to blame for the mislabelling of horsemeat.

"There are plants and companies in Romania exporting horsemeat but everything was according to the standards, and the source and the kind of meat was very clearly put as being horsemeat," Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta told the BBC's Newsnight programme.

"Somewhere in the network to the UK and other countries it seems that something illegal happened and we will fully co-operate to punish any Romanian company involved - but up to now it has not been like this," Mr Ponta added.

The Kravys abattoir, named as the source of the Comigel meat, insists that its labelling is correct, with horsemeat and beef kept clearly apart. It exports horsemeat to Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Poland in its own trucks, the BBC's Nick Thorpe reports.

The abattoir is in Botosani, northeastern Romania, and slaughters 3-4,000 horses annually.

Agriculture ministers from the UK, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Sweden took part in the talks in Brussels, along with European Commission officials.

Retailers in some countries so far unaffected by the scandal have removed some processed foods from sale, as a precaution. That has been done in Germany and Switzerland.

In the UK the supermarket chain Waitrose removed its Essential British Frozen Meatballs, labelled as beef, after pork was found in two batches.

The EU meeting is an opportunity to exchange ideas on where the problem might have originated and how to stop it in the future, the BBC's Christian Fraser reports.

Tighter restrictions for the labelling of processed food are now in the pipeline, our correspondent adds.

"We are looking at whether (such labelling) is possible... but nothing is fixed yet," said a spokesman for EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Tonio Borg.

There are growing concerns that that a drug used to treat horses - and which is harmful to humans - could be in the food chain.

But EU officials say public health is not at stake, and the problem is instead one of mislabelling.

They say it is up to national regulators to take action.

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French food producer makes order

Comigel HQ in Metz, north-east France, asks its subsidiary, Tavola in Luxembourg, to make food products - including beef lasagne for Findus.

Factory orders meat

The Tavola factory orders the meat from Spanghero in the south of France.

Subcontractor used

Spanghero contacts a subcontractor in Cyprus to source the meat.

Subcontractor enlists trader

The Cypriot subcontractor in turn contacts a trader in the Netherlands.

Trader orders from Romania

The trader in the Netherlands places an order for meat with abattoirs in Romania.

Abattoirs send meat to France

The meat from the abattoirs travels to Spanghero in France. However, Romania rejects claims that it was responsible for wrongly describing the horsemeat from its abattoirs as beef. Horsemeat is always labelled as such, they say. The Romanian authorities claim records show orders had been for horse carcass - easily distinguishable from beef.

Meat used to make products

Spanghero sends the meat to the Comigel subsidiary’s factory in Luxembourg before the finished products are supplied to Findus and retailers across Europe, including the UK. The president of Comigel says the company was unaware the meat was coming from abroad.

Horsemeat found in Ireland and UK

Tests by Irish authorities have found equine DNA in beefburgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK. Traces of horsemeat have also been found in stored meat at another plant in Ireland and one in Northern Ireland. In mainland Britain, police and officials probing alleged horsemeat mislabelling have carried out raids at a slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire and a meat firm near Aberystwyth. Three men were later arrested on suspicion of offences under the Fraud Act..

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