France, Britain to punish horsemeat sellers

Leigh Thomas and Tim Castle Paris and London

THE FRENCH and British governments promised on Saturday to punish those found responsible for selling horsemeat in beef products that are at the heart of a growing scandal that started in Britain and is quickly spreading to France.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Owen Paterson, left, speaks to the media outside Defra Headquarters in London, Saturday Feb. 9, 2013, after an emergency meeting with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and representatives of various leading retailers, as revelations about the widespread use of horseheat in supermarket beef products continues to hit consumer confidence. Concerns about the use of horsemeat burst into the spotlight earlier this year, after it emerged that some beef products contained horse DNA, and now the whole industry faces pressure to test their products and reveal the findings. (AP Photo / John Stillwell, PA) UNITED KINGDOM OUT - NO SALES - NO ARCHIVES. Credit: AP

French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said an investigation had found that the horsemeat had originated in Romania, although there were links with French, Dutch and Cypriot firms and a factory in Luxembourg.

British Environment Minister Owen Paterson said more cases of contaminated food could emerge as British retailers conducted tests for horsemeat on processed beef products. The scandal threatens to affect consumer confidence in Europe’s food industry, with pressure rising for greater checks.

The British unit of frozen foods group Findus began a recall this week of its beef lasagne from retailers on advice from its French supplier, Comigel, over concerns that some packs contained high levels of horsemeat.

Findus France said it too had recalled lasagne and two other products after discovering that they included horsemeat from Romania rather than beef from France, as it had thought.

Hamon said an EU-wide alert had been sent out and it was not yet clear whether there had been an intentional fraud or the meat had been sold as beef by accident. “I can assure you that, whether it’s a question of negligence or direct responsibility, there will be sanctions,” Hamon said on iTele television.

Findus France director-general Matthieu Lambeaux said that the firm would file a legal complaint today.

“We thought we had certified French beef in our products. But in reality, we were supplied with Romanian horsemeat. We have been deceived,” Lambeaux said.

Hamon said a Luxembourg factory had been supplied by the French firm, Poujol, which had bought the meat frozen from a Cypriot trader, who in turn sub-contracted the order to a Dutch trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir.

However, Findus’s supplier Comigel, a frozen foods producer based in eastern France, said it had bought the meat from another French firm, supplied from a Romanian abattoir.

Romanian authorities said they would punish any violations if the reports were confirmed. “The agriculture ministry and food safety authority will try to identify as soon as possible whether the [meat] comes from Romania. If legislation was broken, they will punish such practices that damage the image of the entire industry,” Romania’s agriculture ministry said.

In Britain Findus said it believed the contamination was deliberate. “The early results from Findus UK’s internal investigation strongly suggests that the horsemeat contamination in beef lasagne was not accidental,” it said.

Findus’s product recall was followed in Britain by supermarket chain Aldi, which withdrew two frozen beef products after they tested positive for horsemeat. – Reuters