EU holds crisis talks over horsemeat

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AP

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg, right, talks with British Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs Owen William Paterson, center, and President of the EU rotating Council and Ireland's Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, at the European Council building in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Agriculture ministers from the EU countries most affected by the scandal over horse meat found in products labelled as beef, were due to meet for an exchange of information in Brussels on Wednesday evening. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

Brussels - EU ministers held crisis talks Wednesday to seek a rapid regional response to a scandal over mislabelled frozen meat products that is widening across Europe by the day.

The snap talks, starting at 1700 GMT, came a day after British police searching for the source of horsemeat found in kebabs and burgers raided two meat plants, and France became the second European Union nation after Britain to report horsemeat posing as beef in frozen food.

Earlier Wednesday, Germany announced a find of suspect lasagne in its most populous state, and just as the talks were to kick off Swiss supermarket giant Coop reported horsemeat in its lasagne.

“We need a solution fast,” said Britain's food and environment minister Owen Paterson on arriving in Brussels for the food scandal talks.

“The quicker we get this resolved the quicker we can get confidence established across Europe in our food systems and the products.”

Paterson, as well as Ireland's farming minister Simon Coveney, called on arrival for the EU to agree the introduction of DNA testing of frozen foods.

“We have the technology now to test food,” Coveney said. “We need to test to ensure food is what it says it is. I think that will involve DNA testing across Europe.”

Both the Irish minister and France's minister for consumer affairs Benoit Hamon said another protective measure would be to slap country-of-origin tags - currently used only for freah meats - on processed foods.

“What's happening here is fraud.” Coveney added. “People are selling cheap horsemeat as beef. We need to get this out of the food chain fast.”

The hastily convened talks between the EU states most affected by the food scare - Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Sweden - and the EU's health commissioner Tonio Borg were aimed at exchanging information and deciding a plan of action.

Further action will be examined Friday at an extraordinary meeting of an EU “Food Chain” committee, and at February 25 talks of the bloc's 27 farm ministers.

French President Francois Hollande warned the scandal could seriously damage the country's frozen food sector.

Since Britain last week discovered horsemeat in frozen lasagne sold under the Findus label, but processed by French firm Comigel, the scandal has engulfed Europe.

German supermarket chain Kaiser's Tengelmann took its own frozen lasagne off shelves, 24 hours after supermarkets in Switzerland and the Netherlands became the latest to pull ready-made meals as anger grows across Europe.

And then Switzerland's supermarket giant Coop said it had found horsemeat in its own-brand frozen lasagne produced by Comigel.

Comigel, based in northeastern France, has denied all wrongdoing, saying it bought meat from another French firm, Spanghero, through its own Luxembourg subsidiary. Spanghero said it was supplied by two abattoirs in Romania.

Traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands were also reportedly involved in the supply chain.

Romania denied being to blame and its agriculture minister Daniel Constantin again insisted on arrival that “all the horse meat provided by the Romanian companies that was placed on the EU market was correctly labelled.”

“We participate today in this meeting ready to support the common effort to clarify the situation created at EU level,” he said.

As pressure piled on the EU to act, Interbev, an association representing the French cattle and meat industry, said this week that both consumers and professionals wanted swift action on better labelling.

Raids by British police and officials from the Food Standards Agency on Tuesday at a slaughterhouse in northern England and a meat-producing factory in Wales however opened a new front in the pan-European search for the source of the horsemeat.

Both sites were shut and all meat seized.

Andrew Rhodes, operations director of the FSA, said he had ordered an audit of abattoirs that produce horsemeat in Britain when the scandal arose “and I was shocked to uncover what appears to be a blatant misleading of consumers.”

French retailer Picard has said tests had confirmed that horsemeat was present in two lots of frozen “beef” lasagne meals made by Comigel.

Retailers in Britain, Sweden, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands have been removing Comigel products after the firm alerted Swedish frozen food giant Findus to the presence of horsemeat in its meals last week. - Sapa-AFP


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