Europe

Horsemeat scandal: EU ministers hold crisis talks

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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