A scandal involving the detection of horse meat in frozen beef products in Europe has widened, with some of the region’s largest corporate food brands forced to recall millions of products, investigations underway into a suspected international criminal conspiracy, and political leaders moving to assure consumers that beef is safe to eat.
The issue first hit the headlines in mid-January when testing by the Food Safety Authority (FSA) in Ireland found that frozen beef hamburgers sold by the Tesco supermarket chain in the United Kingdom contained 29pc horse DNA.
Tests have since identified horsemeat ranging from trace amounts to 80pc of meat content in burgers produced by three manufacturers in Ireland and England, leading to the recall of millions of products by major retail outlets including Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes, Iceland, Sainsbury’s and Asda.
Fast-food chain Burger King also revealed last week that it had terminated its relationship with one of the manufacturers implicated, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland, a subsidiary of ABP Food Group.
Manufacturers caught up in the scandal have pointed the finger at meat initally purchased from Poland as the likely source of the horse-DNA.
The ABP Food Group which owns two plants implicated in the controversy is reported to have lost €45m ($A 58m) in contracts with major companies including Tesco and Burger King since the crisis broke.
The issue widened last week when further tests revealed “gross contamination” of frozen beef products sold under the Findus brand in the UK, France and Sweden, including beef lasagnes that were found to contain up to 100pc horsemeat.
Six supermarket chains in France – Auchan, Casino, Carrefour, Cora, Monoprix and Picard – withdrew frozen meat products from Findus and French manufacturer and Findus supplier Comigel as a result of the tests.
The Swedish food giant Findus has stated it is taking legal advice after its own internal investigation "strongly suggested" that the presence of horse meat in its frozen beef lasagne meals was "not accidental".
Cogimel, which supplies products such as lasagne to Findus and other major companies including supermarket chain Aldi, has stated it is also considering legal action. A spokesman told the media that Cogimel believed it was being supplied with 100 percent French beef from its supplier, French company Spanghero.
That company has said it sourced the suspect meat from Romania via a dealer in Cyprus who had sub-contracted the deal to a trader in the Netherlands – highlighting the complex supply chain pathways meat transactions can involve in Europe.
The French and Romanian governments have both launched investigations into the meat substitution scandal.
French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said in Le Parisien newspaper that the apparent fraud had generated profits of 300,000 euros and may have been going on since August, according to a Reuters report.
The scandal has also triggered widespread media reports about potential food safety issues.
Food safety experts have been quoted by European media outlets saying that some unregulated meat could contain traces of a widely-used veterinary pain killer phenylbutazone, which can cause a serious blood disorder to humans in rare cases.
British prime-minister David Cameron moved to hose down fears of a food safety issue yesterday.
“It’s important to say there’s no reason to believe any frozen food currently on sale is unsafe or a danger to health,” Mr Cameron said.
“It’s not about food safety – it’s about proper food labelling and about confidence in retailers.”
Meanwhile the Food Safety Authority has suggested that "criminal activity" may to be blame and is now ordering all food companies to test their beef products.
British Food Minister Owen Paterson has also stated that organised crime might be behind the meat substitution.
"It's completely wrong that a British consumer should go to a store, buy a product clearly marked beef, and find that it actually contains a cheaper product – horse," Mr Paterson told the UK media.
"So this is actually fraud on the public.
"And personally, I think it’s either a case of gross incompetence amongst suppliers further down the chain or, and I’ve got reason to believe this is looking increasingly likely, it looks like this is an international crime."
Despite a call by a senior MP for Britain to ban the importation of meat from EU countries until the source of contamination can be properly determined, the British Government has dismissed such a response.
"Arbitrary measures like that are not actually going to help. Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market," he said, but added the government would consider more serious action if public health was at risk.
"Should this move from an issue of labelling and fraud, and there is evidence of material which represents a serious threat to human health, I won't hesitate to take action," Paterson said.