Q&A: Horsemeat scandal

Beef burger generic

The discovery of horsemeat in processed beef products sold by a number of UK supermarket chains last month has resulted in a series of product recalls and thrown the spotlight on the food industry's supply chain. It has also inspired a stricter food testing regime across Europe. So how did the scandal unfold and what is being done?

How did the scandal emerge?

Irish food inspectors announced in mid-January that they had found horsemeat in frozen beefburgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK, and sold by a number of UK supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl.

Since then, a growing number of stores and companies across Europe, including Findus and Nestle, have recalled beef ready meals, after tests found they contained horse DNA.

Catering giant Compass Group, which provides schools and hospitals, and Whitbread, one of Britain's largest hotel chains, have also found horse DNA in products supplied to them as beef.

Health experts have said the issue is one of food fraud rather than food safety.

How widespread is the problem?

Mislabelled processed meat products have so far been discovered in the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. Suspicious products have also been withdrawn in the Netherlands as tests are carried out.

The European Union has told member states to conduct random tests for horsemeat.

In the UK, food retailers were told by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to examine processed beef products soon after the crisis emerged. Some 2,501 tests were conducted but the results announced on 15 February showed that no products other than those already identified contained more than 1% horsemeat.

The 29 positive results were in seven products that had previously been identified and withdrawn. These included some Findus lasagne as well as some Aldi lasagne and spaghetti bolognese - all made by the Comigel food processing company in France. Some of the products were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat.

What is the cause of the scandal?

Experts say the scandal has highlighted the complexity of the food industry's supply chains across Europe.

In France, where seven supermarket chains have withdrawn all frozen beef meals made by Findus and Comigel, an initial investigation has found that horsemeat sold as beef originated from Romanian slaughterhouses before being sold to a Dutch food trader, then on to a Cypriot trader and on again to a French firm.

In Nestle's case, the Swiss-based firm has halted deliveries of products containing meat from a German supplier.

Meanwhile, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak in the UK - suppliers of beefburgers to UK supermarkets and caterers - both said they had never bought or traded in horse product and have launched an investigation into their continental European third-party suppliers.

Why would meat suppliers use horsemeat instead of beef?

Many believe financial gain is the motive for the fraud - horsemeat is cheaper than other meats in some countries. Some industry insiders say profit margins have been squeezed by supermarkets and it is understandable that people might "cut corners".

On the Continent the price of horsemeat is much higher, as "viande de cheval" is a recognised dish in France. Horsemeat is also eaten in Italy and is consumed in vast quantities in China.

Have there been any arrests or legal action?

In the UK, raids have taken place at Peter Boddy Licensed Slaughterhouse, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, and Farmbox Meats Ltd, near Aberystwyth, by FSA officials supported by police.

Police also arrested three men on suspicion of offences under the Fraud Act. They have been bailed and all deny any wrongdoing.

Three more firms in London and Hull were later raided.

Meanwhile, evidence seized by UK investigators has been handed to the European law enforcement agency Europol.

In France, Findus France says it has been the victim of fraud and will take action in the courts, accusing French supplier Spanghero of knowingly selling horsemeat labelled as beef. Spanghero denies the allegation and says it is a victim of its Romanian supplier - but when French officials temporarily suspended Spanghero's licence, they said the Romanian firm had acted in good faith.

Dutch officials have raided a meat processing plant suspected of mislabelling beef.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, police have been asked to consider whether the beefburgers were adulterated accidentally or whether there was fraudulent activity and deliberate mislabelling.

Who is responsible for checking and enforcing standards in the UK?

The Food Standards Agency is an independent food safety watchdog responsible for food safety and food hygiene in the UK, and its work is conducted by local authority inspectors. It tested almost 80,000 samples of food last year and focuses "on those risks that can make people ill or worse", including looking for arsenic and listeria.

But the agency has not been responsible for DNA testing to show whether meat is authentic.

In response to the horsemeat scandal, the FSA have launched a UK-wide survey of food authenticity, to be completed by local authorities in three phases, testing 514 products.

Foodstuffs labelled as containing beef as a major ingredient were the first to be tested. Burgers, mince and sausages were among the phase one testing, which is continuing, while beef-based ready meals such as lasagne and cottage pie form phase two.

Phase three is due to begin as part of a Europe-wide control programme to check food items such as seasoned kebabs, gelatine, beef dripping, stock cubes and steak.

UK food retailers have also now agreed to update ministers on their own DNA testing on processed beef every three months.

Should I throw away the meat I have bought if I suspect it might be horsemeat?

Horsemeat itself should be as safe to eat as beef and is eaten in many countries around the world.

The government has advised people to carry on with their normal shopping habits unless told otherwise. But if people have any of the recalled products, they are advised to return them to the store they were purchased from.

The FSA ordered tests to check whether a drug given to horses, bute (phenylbutazone) - which can be dangerous to humans - had illegally entered the human food chain. It found eight horses, killed in the UK, had tested positive for bute and six may have entered the food chain in France. However, the levels detected are said to pose "very little risk to human health".

Rules introduced this month mean all horsemeat in the UK should now be tested for bute before it is allowed to be sold for food.

Supermarket Asda is recalling all corned beef from its budget range after the tests found "very low levels" of bute.