Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat. But the investigation took an EU-wide dimension as British investigators found evidence of "gross negligence or possibly criminality" involving several countries.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a British government body, held a meeting on Saturday (9 February) with UK regulators and food industry representatives in the ongoing contaminated meat incident.
"This is a conspiracy against the public," said British farm minister Owen Paterson before convening the weekend meeting. "I've got an increasing feeling that it is actually a case of an international criminal conspiracy."
French officials tracing the contamination of the Findus beef lasagne 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.
However, Comigel, a frozen foods producer based in eastern France, told a newspaper it had bought the meat from another French company, supplied from a Romanian abattoir.
Europol 'aware of our investigation'
In Britain, the FSA said it was now working closely with the police on the investigation.
The most recent information regarding the supermarket chain Aldi and Swedish frozen foods business Findus, the FSA said in a statement, "does suggest gross negligence or possibly criminality, and we are working closely with the French authorities as part of the investigation. Europol are also aware of our investigations."
In Romania, officials said one of the two Romanian abattoirs suspected to have provided horsemeat had been cleared of all suspicion. "I believe that, even though the investigation isn't finished, that everything left the country properly and officially," Constantin Savu, of Romania's food safety authority, was quoted as saying by state news agency Agerpres on Sunday.
"I find it hard to believe that such errors could exist."
In France, six big retailers said they were recalling lasagne and other products suspected to be mislabeled.
Calls for import ban
On Saturday, the FSA ordered the food industry to provide authenticity tests by 15 February on all beef products, such as beefburgers, meatballs and lasagne.
Anne McIntosh, who chairs the parliamentary food and environment committee, called for a temporary import ban on processed and frozen meats from the other 26 EU 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?"
Henrik Nyberg, product manager for Findus in the Nordics countries, said about 20,000 frozen lasagna meals are being recalled in Sweden.
Nyberg told the Associated Press that the products do not pose any food safety risk, and were recalled solely because they had been mislabeled.
Retailer Tesco and discount chain Aldi had cleared their shelves of frozen spaghetti bolognese and beef lasagne earlier in the week pending their own tests because they were made by Comigel, the French manufacturer that supplied Findus, the daily Guardian reported.
Aldi subsequently began withdrawing its frozen beef lasagna and frozen spaghetti bolognese after finding between 30 and 100% horse meat in some samples.
Findus began the withdrawal after Comingel alerted them to a problem on Sunday, but the Swedish manufacturer did not specify the problem was related to horsemeat.
The FSA tested 18 beef processed lasagna products made by Findus and found that 11 of them contained between 60% and 100% horsemeat.
The problem of mislabeled meats has grown as the food supply chain becomes more complex and companies strive to lower costs.
“This is a very serious issue”, the FSA said in a statement. “The evidence we have about the two cases, of the significant amount of horse meat in burgers and lasagne, points to either gross negligence or deliberate contamination in the food chain. This is why we have already involved the police, both here and in Europe.”
The European Food Safety Authority, an EU body, said: "EFSA is aware of the contamination of beef products with horsemeat in the EU food chain. The source is currently being investigated by risk managers across Europe, who have requested extensive testing to be carried out.
"In the EU food safety system, EFSA’s role is to provide scientific advice to risk managers regarding food and feed safety. The contamination of beef products with horsemeat raises issues of false labelling, food quality and traceability in the EU food chain. While there is no evidence to date of a food safety concern, EFSA stands ready to provide scientific assistance to the European Commission and/or Member States should this be required.
"In the European food safety system, risk assessment is done separately from risk management. The European Commission, European Parliament and EU Member States are the key risk managers in the EU system. They are responsible for determining European policies and making decisions to manage risks associated with the food chain such as this case of entry of horsemeat into the food chain."
- 15 Feb.: Deadline for food industry to deliver "authenticity tests" on all beef products in the UK.