EU ministers will hold a meeting in Brussels tomorrow (13 February) to deal with the fallout from the horsemeat scandal as investigations in France and the UK continued yesterday.
The scandal (see background), which has already impacted on distributors in the UK, France, Sweden, Ireland and Romania, has raised questions about the complexity of the food industry's supply chains across the EU.
French ministers yesterday (11 February) held talks with key meat industry representatives, as seven French supermarket chains – Auchan, Casino, Carrefour, Cora, Monoprix, Grand Jury and Picard – withdrew frozen beef meals made by Findus and Comigel.
Food Minister Guillaume Garot said he wanted to ensure that all contentious products had been removed.
UK minister updated MPs
In the UK, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson updated MPs on the latest developments.
The European Commission yesterday indicated that a UK moratorium on EU meat imports – which has been called for by UK politicians – is not allowed under EU rules.
The Irish presidency announced it was convening a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday at the behest of the UK and other governments.
An initial investigation by French officials revealed that French firm Poujol bought the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader. That trader received it from a Dutch food trader, and which in turn had purchased the meat from two Romanian slaughterhouses.
Poujol supplied the meat to a Luxembourg factory owned by French group Comigel. The meat was then sold under the Sweden-based brand, Findus, which has said it has been misled by its Romanian meat supplier.
The controversy surrounding contamination of meat products has also affected firms in the Irish Republic and Poland.
Cases are going to bite the fraudsters
Last month, Irish food inspectors announced they had found horsemeat in some burgers stocked by a number of UK supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl.
Frédéric Vincent, the Commission’s spokesperson for health and consumer policy, said: “All food in the EU is traceable so you can always work back to the source of the problem, but investigations are under way in several states. If it becomes clear there was fraud we find ourselves in a business-to-business context, then the operators must sort this out through legal channels.”
The Swedish National Food Agency is considering reporting Findus and other companies that have mislead consumers and wrongly claimed their products contained 100% beef to the police.
“It’s always the one who puts a product on the market who has the responsibility for correct labeling. So in this case Findus has the responsibility,” said the Swedish minister for rural affairs, Eskil Erlandsson.
“They are not going to get away with cheating. Such cases are going to bite them so hard that they’ll never again consider placing something on the market which doesn’t contain what is indicated on the label.”
A statement from the Geneva-based International Road Transport Union, claimed that the scandal could have been avoided if the Transports Internationaux Routiers (International Road Transport or TIR) system had been in place in the EU.
The TIR is an international harmonised system of customs control that facilitates trade and transport whilst effectively protecting the revenue of each country through which goods are carried.
Exchange of goods under TIR can only take place with duly authorised, secure, sealed vehicles, and all transport operations under TIR, notably on the whole territory of the European Union, are subject to the mandatory electronic pre-declaration of goods to customs.
“However, practically none of these requirements exist in the current obligatory transit system imposed by the EU Customs Code for the transport of goods between the 27 EU Member States,” said the statement.
“The IRU is convinced that the reintroduction of the TIR System for the transport of goods on EU territory would again ensure full traceability and increase consumers’ safety in the commercial exchange of goods between EU Member States,” the IRU statement added.
“The rules [on labeling and traceability] exist, they just need to be applied,” said MEP Sophie Auconie (PPE, France). “There are existing and severe rules in place to deal with the traceability and labelling of meat products, from the birth of the animal to consumption by European citizens. In reality the problem does not reside in a lack of rules but in the fact that they are not respected, and therefore a lack of control of the rules in certain member states. In the face of increasingly long supply chains within the agro-food business, it is absolutely essential to increase the means of control that authorities have over the food chains,” Auconie concluded.
Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a British government body, gave food companies a week to test all their beef products upon discovery of the mislabeled products.
The UK agency instructed consumers to return the Findus lasagnas and Tesco burgers as a precaution, but said there was no evidence to suggest that horsemeat itself was a food safety risk.
- 13-15 Feb.: Ministers set to meet over horsemeat
- 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)