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Paris - The world's biggest food company, Swiss-based Nestle, and the world's top beef producer, JBS of Brazil, were on Tuesday the latest in a long list of firms to be caught up in Europe's spiralling horsemeat scandal.
Their involvement in the fast-moving drama marked another milestone in a scandal that has seen supermarket chains across Europe pull from their shelves millions of “beef” products that are thought to contain horsemeat.
Nestle announced it was removing two ready-to-eat meals - beef ravioli and beef tortellini - from supermarket shelves in Italy and Spain after tests found traces of horse DNA in the products.
A Nestle frozen lasagne product made for the catering business was also being withdrawn from sale in France and Portugal because traces of horsemeat were found in them.
The firm insisted there was no food safety issue, but said the tainted products breached the one-percent threshold the British Food Safety Agency uses to indicate likely adulteration or gross negligence.
The horse DNA was found in products made with meat supplied by German firm H.J. Schypke, Nestle said in a statement late on Monday.
JBS of Brazil, which used H.J. Schypke as a subcontractor, meanwhile said in a statement that it would stop buying European meat “until confidence is restored in the European beef supply chain”.
It sought to distance itself from the scandal, saying Schypke was “not in any way part of the JBS Group” and adding that “no case of co-mingling of species has been identified in products produced in or at JBS factories”.
Schypke on Tuesday denied any wrongdoing.
“We buy all raw materials already chopped up, fresh or frozen, from certified suppliers... We would like to point out expressly that H.J. Schypke has at no time purchased horsemeat,” it said.
The firm said it “greatly regretted” the current case and vowed to carry out genetic tests on raw meat in future.
German authorities meanwhile announced on Tuesday that 24 out of 360 official tests carried out on meat had revealed traces of horsemeat.
“It's too early to assign blame unilaterally... the authorities are working in the federal states to work out who should take responsibility,” consumer affairs ministry spokesman Holger Eichele told reporters.
But he said the authorities would eventually be able to tell who were the “main culprits” and the “co-culprits” once the tests of ready meals and inspections of slaughterhouses and food production centres were complete.
On Monday, German discount chain Lidl pulled ready-made meals from the shelves of its Finnish, Danish, Swedish and Belgian stores as it also confirmed the presence of horsemeat.
The French firm that sparked the Europe-wide food alert, by allegedly passing off 750 tons of horsemeat as beef, was on Monday allowed to resume production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals.
But Spanghero, whose horsemeat found its way into 4.5 million “beef” products sold across Europe, will no longer be allowed to stock frozen meat, officials said.
Upholding that ban means it cannot act as middleman between slaughterhouses and food-processing companies, the situation which allegedly allowed it to change labels on horsemeat from Romania and sell it on as beef.
The firm's sanitary licence was suspended last Thursday after it was accused of passing off huge quantities of mislabelled meat over a period of six months.
On Tuesday, a source close to the investigation told AFP that authorities had raided Spanghero's headquarters in southern France.
“The judicial phase began this afternoon with investigations, searches and on-site interviews,” the source said.
A union representative said investigators spoke to four employees.
Concerns about horsemeat first emerged in mid-January when Irish authorities found traces of horse in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco and Aldi.
The scandal then intensified when French firm Comigel alerted Findus earlier this month to the presence of horsemeat in the meals it had made for the food giant and which were on sale in Britain.
Since then, supermarket chains have removed millions of “beef” products as tests are carried out to detect horsemeat, which is eaten in many European countries but considered taboo in Britain.
Horsemeat in “beef” dishes has now been confirmed in products found in Britain, Ireland, France, Austria, Norway, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. - Sapa-AFP