French Officials Mull Horse Meat Response as Concern Spreads

By: Bloomberg Email
By: Bloomberg Email

(Bloomberg) - The French government is meeting with the country’s food safety regulators today after six supermarket groups removed prepared meals amid increasing concern over labeling horse meat as beef.

The ministries in charge of agriculture, consumption, food hygiene and distribution will meet with food safety officials at 4:30 p.m. in Paris and hold a press conference an hour later, the government said in an e-mailed statement.

Casino Guichard-Perrachon SA, Carrefour SA and four more retailers yesterday withdrew frozen lasagna, moussaka, cannelloni and hachis parmentier made by Findus Group Ltd. and Comigel after some products were found to contain horse meat. The issue first emerged just over a month ago when U.K. and Irish supermarkets including Tesco Plc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Asda and Aldi removed similar products.

While officials in the U.K. and France have assured the public that the mislabeled food doesn’t pose health risks, U.K. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson nevertheless said it was still an issue of “criminal substitution” and that the meat probably originated in Romania.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta today said there was no evidence of wrongdoing at Romanian companies.

“It’s unfair for Romania to have a credibility deficit and accept a statute of usual suspect,” Ponta said. “We have done our job and we have every interest that those who are guilty of this fraud are sanctioned.”

Testing Deadline

The multiple intermediaries involved make it tough to nail down who’s responsible, French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said on RTL radio today. “We need to get out of this fog,” he said. “That way, we can establish traceability.”

The U.K. Food Standards Agency last week gave food makers until Feb. 15 to test beef products. Public bodies such as schools, prisons, hospitals and the armed forces are responsible for their own food contracts, procurement and finding reputable suppliers, the agency said on its website.

The meat originated in Romania, went through a Dutch trader before making its way through an entity in Cyprus to the French company Spanghero and then on to Comigel, a French wholesale distributor of packaged vegetables, fish and meat, Agence France-Presse reported, citing the French agriculture ministry.

Criminal Substitution

“So far, there is no indication that the meat mislabeling was done in Romania,” Daniel Constantin, Romania’s agriculture minister, told reporters in Bucharest. He said the names of the abattoirs in Romania were provided by the French company which is subject to the investigation. Constantin also said Romania hasn’t exported minced meat. “From Romania’s point of view the matter is closed” until new information appears, he said.

For now, “it looks as if the problem is limited to processed beef,” Paterson said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview yesterday. “It looks as if there has been criminal substitution of beef with horse. There may be further bad news this week. I do not know how far this incompetence or criminal activity extends.”

Paterson said that under European Union rules, the U.K. can only ban food imports if there is a risk to human health. The U.K. Food Standards Agency has asked Findus to test for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, known as “bute,” which in large doses may pose a threat to humans.

“There is no evidence of risk to human health,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said in London today. “There isn’t a public health issue.”

In the U.K., routine testing of meat to see if it was horse was stopped by the previous Labour government in 2003. Mary Creagh, Labour’s environment spokeswoman, said Paterson should have acted sooner to order tests after horse meat was found in beef products in Ireland.

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