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Horsemeat scandal spreads, testing EU's reputation for food standards

UK tests have found few cases of horsemeat-tainted beef, officials said Friday. While the threat to humans is low, many worry an EU-wide trail of alleged criminality in the food-supply chain could spark panic.

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A sign at the entrance of French meat supplier Spanghero in Castelnaudary, southern France, Monday. French economy minister Benoit Hamon on Thursday, pinned the bulk of the blame on a French wholesaler at the heart of the growing scandal in Europe.

Manuel Blondeau/AP

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The EU has long prided itself on food standards, but a scandal that has seen beef adulterated with horsemeat has now spread to 12 European countries, leaving many asking questions about the transparency of Europe’s food supply chains.

The issue of tainted beef first became known in Ireland on Jan. 15, when the country's Food Standards Authority announced it had discovered "equine DNA" in some processed beef products. Food safety officials considered it a problem in part because horses are not subject to the same regulations as cows to be considered fit for human consumption. Initially thought to be a local problem of contamination, the revelations prompted more amusement than revulsion.

Just a month later, though, dozens of products have been withdrawn from sale, including some “beef” products that were determined to be 100 percent horsemeat. As an EU-wide trail of alleged criminality has emerged, the EU’s reputation for food standards is on the line as it faces what some say could become the worst food crisis since the "mad cow disease" panic of the early 2000s.

"If they keep going with this it'll turn into a full-blown panic. The health risks are so small, so there's no real basis for this, but panics often take place primarily in the rarefied realm of politics and the media," says Rob Lyons, author of “Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder.”

The discovery has unleashed a flurry of activity. Today, Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced it has, so far, performed 2,501 tests on beef products, seeking to discover the presence of horsemeat. 2,472 were negative, but 29 products tested positive for horsemeat. A further 900 tests are under way.

"The results show that the overwhelming majority of beef products in this country do not contain horse," says Catherine Brown, FSA chief executive, adding that the presence of horsemeat in any was unacceptable.

The EU’s food regulatory committee met today to plan Europe-wide, large-scale testing of meat to determine how broad the problem is.

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 Food supply chains in question

Accusations that the source of the adulterated meat was Poland and then Romania have been met with denial by governments. But the real surprise for many came when the meat was traced back to France.

The French government has accused meat processor Spanghero of intentionally mislabeling horsemeat as beef.

The company's license has been suspended, and consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon told reporters at a press conference: "The investigation shows that Spanghero knew that the meat labeled as beef could be horse."

Hamon also said Spanghero's Romanian supplier appears to have provided the horsemeat in good faith.

The company denies malfeasance.

"Spanghero confirms having placed an order for beef, having been led to believe it received beef, and having sold back what it thought was beef, properly labeled as such, in line with European and French regulations," it said in a statement.

Spanghero imported meat from Romania and sold it on to another company, Comigel, which produced frozen meals at its factory in Luxembourg for distribution across Europe under multiple brand names. One product line manufactured by Comigel, frozen lasagna sold in Britain and Ireland under the brand of Swedish group Findus, was found to contain meat labeled beef that turned out to be 100 percent horse.

One concern is the presence of veterinary painkiller phenylbutazone, which is commonly used to treat horses but is not approved for human consumption, because of its side effects.

Very low risk

Britain's chief medical officer, professor Dame Sally Davies, issued a statement saying: “Horsemeat containing phenylbutazone presents a very low risk to human health." A person would have to eat hundreds of the contaminated burgers a day in order to ingest a dose of the medicine.

Nonetheless, the horsemeat scandal fuels fears that the EU's reputation for food standards is under threat. And in a separate development, British police have arrested three people in connection with suspected fraud in meat sales.

Mr. Lyons says, ironically, the likely cause of the scam is EU regulation in the first place.

"As Dr. Mark Woolfe, formerly of the [British] FSA pointed out, in April last year, the EU, with just two days notice, demanded that meat mechanically removed from bones could no longer be described as beef, but had to be called 'desinewed meat,' says Lyons. "Nobody wants that on their ingredients lists, so they started searching around for beef and seemingly some bright spark had the idea of passing-off horsemeat as beef."

Despite this, Lyons says that while the health risks are low, suppliers need to reassure consumers that they are getting what they pay for.

"Things should be accurately labeled and the supermarkets and food producers will need to tighten up their checks on this. Either they'll need shorter supply chains that are easier to trace, or they're going to have to do testing and not just rely on the paperwork."

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