LONDON – A food fraud scandal over horse meat sold as beef deepened Saturday as two companies at the center of the row took legal action and European governments said criminal activity is suspected.
Frozen food giant Findus lodged a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horse in its beef lasagna was “not accidental,” while a French meat-processing firm said it will sue its Romanian supplier.
Romania — where the horse meat has been traced back to following a complex trail leading through Cyprus and the Netherlands that British tabloid The Sun dubbed a “hoofdunnit” — announced an urgent inquiry into two abattoirs.
Britain said earlier in the week that the Findus lasagna and two meals sold by supermarket chain Aldi contained up to 100 percent horse meat, and that products containing horse have subsequently been found in France and Sweden.
The consumption of horse meat is particularly taboo in Britain, whose environment minister, Owen Paterson, on Saturday took the reins of 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,” Paterson said afterward.
British authorities have said they are testing to see whether the horse meat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans. They have also refused to rule out the possibility that horse meat could be found in school meals.
The Findus and Aldi meals were assembled by French food manufacturer Comigel using meat provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing firm 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.
French frozen food company Picard said Saturday it had also withdrawn two lines of lasagna made by Comigel for analysis.
Comigel Chairman Erich Lehagre said his company 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 said.
Findus initiated legal proceedings Saturday but did not identify an alleged culprit in a criminal complaint lodged against persons unknown by French authorities. In Britain, Findus officials said they are taking legal advice over “what they believe is their suppliers’ failure to meet contractual obligations about product integrity.”
“The early results from Findus U.K.’s internal investigation strongly suggest that the horse meat contamination in beef lasagna was not accidental,” the company said in a statement.
Separately, Spanghero, which was set up by two former French rugby players, said it will sue the Romanian supplier on the grounds that it mislabeled the horse meat but refused to identify the supplier. “We bought European origin beef and we resold it. If it really is horse meat, we are going to go after the Romanian supplier,” Spanghero Chairman Barthelemy Aguerre said.
But French Junior Economy Minister Benoit Hamon said that Poujol, the holding company of 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.”
Romania’s Agriculture Ministry said Saturday that it will launch an inquiry into shipments of meat to France after French authorities implicated two Romanian slaughterhouses in the scandal.
“If it finds that the meat came from Romania and that the law has been broken, the culprits will be punished,” the ministry said.
The lasagna scandal has blown up in the wake of a similar discovery last month relating to the content of “beef” burgers in Britain and Ireland. On Saturday, the Cyprus veterinary service said it has launched a probe into whether burgers containing horse meat have reached Cyprus from Ireland.
Horse meat is still consumed in many parts of Europe that consider it leaner and healthier than beef. But food safety experts fear some unregulated meat could contain traces of a widely used veterinary painkiller, phenylbutazone, which in rare cases can cause a serious blood disorder in humans.