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'Criminal conspiracy' blamed for European horse-in-burger scandal

Remy Gabalda / AFP - Getty Images, file

A Europe-wide food fraud scandal over horse sold as beef has Britain worrying about criminal conspiracies and drug-tainted food.

Updated 4:45 p.m. ET:  Adding to the web of companies caught up in Europe's horse meat scandal, British grocery chain Tesco said Monday that samples of its frozen spaghetti meal contained more than 60 percent horse DNA.

Horsemeat is largely taboo in Britain and some other countries, though in France it is sold in specialty butcher shops and is prized by some connoisseurs. Authorities aren't worried about health effects, but it has unsettled consumers across Europe and raised questions about producers misleading the public.

As Britons choke on discovering they may have eaten horse that was imported as beef, and ministers blame an "international criminal conspiracy," this new scandal has exposed the sometimes murky labyrinth by which food reaches Europe's dinner tables.


But as governments play down the health risks, a greater impact may stem from a shattering of public confidence in E.U. systems of labeling and quality control introduced after previous threats hit the human food chain.

As details emerge of a complex network of slaughterhouses and middlemen standing between the farm and the supermarkets across Europe, France and Britain have vowed to punish those found responsible for selling horse meat purported to be beef.

With DNA tests needed to tell the two kinds of flesh apart, retailers and makers of processed meals complain of being duped by suppliers; one French firm has pointed a finger at Romania.

Scott Heppell / AP

Frozen-food company Findus recalled beef lasagne earlier this week after French supplier Comigel raised concerns that the products didn't "conform to specification." The U.K. Food Standards Agency said the lasagnes were tested as part of an ongoing investigation into mislabeled meat.

"This is a conspiracy against the public," said British farm minister Owen Paterson. "I've got an increasing feeling that it is actually a case of an international criminal conspiracy."

Prime Minister David Cameron has called it "very shocking."

Adding to concerns are indications that some horse meat, perfectly edible in itself, may contain a drug known as bute — a common anti-inflammatory painkiller for sporting horses but banned for animals intended for eventual human consumption.

Britain's Food Standards Agency said it was checking whether horse carcasses exported from Britain contained phenylbutazone. It said five such animals were sold abroad last year and it had told foreign agencies. French media said the horses went there.

One firm hit by the British horse meat scandal, frozen foods group Findus, said it was recalling its beef lasagne product after discovering they included horse meat. Its French supplier, Comigel, said the questionable meat came from E.U. member Romania.

An E.U.-wide alert has been sent out and governments debated how to bring the increasingly complex industry under control.

Food experts say globalization has brought benefits to food supply, with exotic items now available from around the world all year round, but it has also created a system that is so complex it has increased the risks of adulteration, whether by design, to use cheaper inputs, or through neglect of standards.

The "mad cow" crisis, which saw British beef banned in the E.U. in the 1990s over fears of a degenerative brain disease, left a legacy of tight controls on the identity of European animals, intended to ensure the origins of fresh meat are traceable.

But in meat minced into processed product, while hygiene checks are the norm, testing for something as seemingly basic as which species it came from is complex and not widely undertaken.

Difficult to trace
Tracing processed meat back to its source is difficult in Europe's complex market, and the path from abattoirs where cows and horses are slaughtered and minced to people's dinner tables often meanders through a confusing chain of middle companies.

Last week's problems for Findus came less than a month after British supermarkets found horse meat in beef burgers from Ireland.

French officials tracing the contamination of the Findus beef lasagna 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 had subcontracted the order to a Dutch trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir. But others gave different stories.

France says that Romanian butchers and Dutch and Cypriot traders were part of a supply chain that resulted in horsemeat being labeled as beef before it was included in frozen dinners including lasagna, moussaka and the French equivalent of Shepherd's Pie. The affair started earlier this year with worries about horsemeat in burgers in Ireland and Britain.

Romania scrambled Monday to contain the damage from the fast-growing European horsemeat scandal, saying that two plants believed to be the source of mislabeled meat had declared it properly and any fraud was committed somewhere down the line.

Anne McIntosh, who chairs Britain's parliamentary food and environment committee, called for a temporary import ban on processed and frozen meats from the other 26 E.U. states.

"My concern is that consumer confidence will have collapsed across the European Union," McIntosh, from Cameron's Conservative party, told the BBC on Sunday.

"We seem to be no clearer as to what the source of this contamination is, or whether the supply was ever destined for human consumption. Is this a fraud of such a massive scale that it should never have entered the human food chains?"

Alison Mutler, The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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