Published — Saturday 16 February 2013
Last update 16 February 2013 1:28 am
LONDON: Tests have found horsemeat in school meals, hospital food and restaurant dishes in Britain, spreading the scandal over adulterated meat beyond frozen supermarket products.
Results were coming yesterday after food safety officials ordered supermarkets and suppliers to test all processed meals labeled as beef for traces of horsemeat.
Whitbread PLC, Britain’s largest hotel and restaurant company, said horsemeat had been found in lasagna and burgers served at its Premier Inn hotels and Brewers Fayre restaurant chain. Officials also said horsemeat was present in cottage pies delivered to 47 schools in Lancashire county, northern England.
Horse also has turned up in hospital meals in Northern Ireland. David Bingham, of the health service’s Business Services Organization, said the meals, from a supplier in the Republic of Ireland, had been withdrawn.
The EU’s top health official yesterday said there was no need to panic over a Europewide horsemeat scandal, saying it was a labeling rather than a health issue.
“Till now this is not a food safety issue,” EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters during a visit to Athens.
“We should not create panic ourselves. Sometimes the reaction can be irrational. Unless there is proof that it is a food safety issue we will treat it as a labeling issue,” Borg said.
Supermarkets across Europe have pulled millions of frozen ready meals from the shelves since last week, after tests revealed that large quantities of horsemeat had made their way into products labelled as beef.
The scandal has exposed a sprawling web of abattoirs and meat suppliers — all of which deny fraudulently passing horsemeat off as beef — in countries including Britain, France, Luxembourg and Romania.
In addition to outrage from deceived consumers, there was concern after British officials revealed Thursday that the potentially harmful drug Phenylbutazone, a painkiller for horses more commonly known as ‘bute’, had been found in horse carcasses sent to France.
Borg said EU states had agreed to launch a three-month “systematic” inspection of animal DNA testing and to determine the possible presence of the drug.
“We have one of the best food safety systems in the world,” he said. “We have the tools to trace any product... in a question of a few hours practically or a few days.”
“The physical trail has been established,” he said.
Meanwhile, two meat vendors at the heart of a growing European uproar over horsemeat labeled as beef and hidden in frozen meals have denied any fraud, with one French wholesaler saying yesterday he has proof that his company is innocent.
Barthelemy Aguerre, chief of the French wholesaler Spanghero, told RTL radio that his company in southern France did receive a lot of horsemeat along with beef in its shipments “and we didn’t touch” it. He did not provide details or specify whether he reported the horsemeat delivery, saying only, “I will prove my innocence.”
French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said Thursday that it appeared fraudulent meat sales over several months reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. Hamon fingered Spanghero as a major culprit, but said there was plenty of blame to go around.
In the Netherlands, the lawyer for the Dutch meat vendor Draap said the company denied misleading anyone, although the attorney acknowledged that Draap’s director, Jan Fasen, had been previously convicted of mislabeling horsemeat as halal meat.
“Clients get what they order,” lawyer Rogier Hoerchner said in a statement. “Draap cannot see what is on the label of end products.”
Europol, the European Union police agency, is coordinating a continent-wide fraud investigation amid allegations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.
Police in the UK on Thursday announced the arrests of three men on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants inspected earlier this week by the country’s Food Standards Agency.
The escalating horsemeat scandal has raised questions about food controls in the 27-nation European Union — and highlighted how little consumers know about the complex trading operations that get food from producers to wholesalers to processors to stores and onto their dinner table.
Hamon said Spanghero was one company in a food production chain that started with two Romanian slaughterhouses, which say they clearly labeled their meat as horse.
The meat was then bought by a Cyprus-registered trader and sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands.
Spanghero bought the meat from the trader, then resold it to the French frozen food processor Comigel. The resulting food was marketed under the Sweden-based Findus brand as lasagna and other products as containing ground beef.
Hamon said Spanghero was well aware that the meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel.
But Aguerre, the Spanghero executive, said if there was a customs code indicating horsemeat, his company knew nothing about it.