The European Commission has proposed increased DNA testing of meat products to assess the scale of a scandal involving horsemeat sold as beef that has shocked the public and raised concern over the continent's food supply chains.
"The tests will be on DNA in meat products in all member states," Health Commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters after a ministerial meeting in Brussels to discuss the affair.
The initial one-month testing plan would include premises handling horsemeat to check whether potentially harmful equine medicine residues have entered the food chain, Borg said, with the first results expected by mid-April.
The scandal erupted when tests carried out in Ireland revealed that meat in products labelled as beef was in fact up to 100% horsemeat. Operators in at least eight EU countries have since been dragged into the affair, raising fears of a pan-European labelling fraud.
Officials have said no risk to public health from the adulterated foods has been identified at this stage but testing for horse medicine in meat is being undertaken to be sure.
The suspected fraud has caused particular outrage in Britain, where many view the idea of eating horsemeat with distaste, and exposed flaws in food controls.
"This is impacting on the integrity of the food chain, which is a really significant issue for a lot of countries. Now that we know this is a European problem, we need a European solution," Simon Coveney, the Irish farm minister, said before the meeting. Ireland holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council.
At the urging of ministers, Borg said the Commission would accelerate work on potential changes to EU labelling rules that would force companies to state the country of origin on processed meat products.
Currently the requirement only applies to fresh beef, and is expected to be extended to fresh lamb, pork and poultry from December 2014.
But EU officials have warned privately that the complexity of supply chains would make the requirement almost impossible to implement in practice.
EU and national authorities are still trying to uncover the source of the suspected horsemeat fraud.
"All those countries through which this meat product has passed of course are under suspicion," Borg told a news briefing earlier on Wednesday. "By the countries, I mean the companies in those countries which dealt with this meat product."
He added that it would be unfair at this stage to point the finger at any organisation in particular.
Food safety authorities in Britain and France say they have traced some suspected horsemeat to a Romanian abattoir. That has incensed Romanian authorities. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said on Monday (11 February) that any fraud over horsemeat sold as beef had not happened in his country and he was angered by suggestions it might have been.
On Wednesday (13 February), Daniel Constantin, the Romanian farm minister, said in a statement: "I want to point out that all member states, the European Commission and the Irish presidency agreed that we need identify as quickly as possible the source of fraud. The main conclusion drawn was that it is not a matter of food safety. I think this is the most important thing to be transmitted to the consumers.
"From Romania’s point of view there is no possibility that the fraud was committed on our territory and by the two companies that traded horsemeat within the EU," Constantin said.
On 15 January, routine tests by Ireland's Food Safety Authority found horsemeat in frozen beef burgers produced by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer.
Concerns grew last week when the British unit of frozen foods group Findus began recalling packets of beef lasagna on advice from its French supplier Comigel, after tests showed up to 100 percent of the meat in them was horse.
The affair has since implicated operators and middlemen in a range of EU countries, from abattoirs in Romania and factories in Luxembourg to traders in Cyprus and food companies in France.
- 15 Feb.: Deadline for food industry to deliver "authenticity tests" on all beef products in the UK.
- UK Food Safety Authority: Statement from meeting on contaminated meat (9 Feb. 2013)