European Union nations should test thousands of processed beef products for horse meat to establish the scale of a labeling scandal that has spread from Ireland to Germany, and analyze slaughtered horses for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, the EU said.
Passing off horse meat as beef isn’t considered a food-safety issue for now, and “we are now treating this as a fraudulent misuse of the labeling system for economic gain,” EU Health and Consumer Commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters after a meeting of European ministers in Brussels yesterday.
Under Borg’s proposal, which he will present to an EU committee on the food chain and animal health tomorrow and which will need approval by the member states, countries in the bloc should carry out 2,500 tests of processed beef products for horse DNA in March and report by April 15. A further 4,000 samples of horse meat will be examined for phenylbutazone, also known as bute, which can be harmful to humans.
Supermarkets in the U.K., Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany have pulled tainted frozen beef burgers and lasagnas from shelves and France has threatened sanctions for negligence and fraud since the scandal erupted last month. Borg said the criminal investigations will be coordinated by Europol.
Each test will cost about 400 euros ($538), with the commission contributing half, the commissioner said.
“The problem is where in this chain in moving from one country to another did this labeling occur,” Borg said. “The mislabeling could have occurred in any country through which the meat product physically passed.”
While the initial test run is earmarked for one month, the testing should continue for three months, Borg said.
Each year, more than 200,000 horses are slaughtered for meat in the EU, with close to half killed in Italy, followed by Poland, Spain and France, according to Humane Society International, an animal protection organization based in Washington. The meat is also imported from Canada and Latin America, it said.
Tesco Plc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Asda and Aldi have removed some ranges of frozen beef burgers from their shelves in the past month as concern has escalated over tainted meat. A line of lasagnas produced by Findus Group Ltd. was found to contain more than 60 percent horse meat, and Tesco said Feb. 11 that tests found the same percentage of the meat in some spaghetti Bolognese products.
The ministers also agreed that a European Commission recommendation on labeling the origin of all processed meat should be accelerated and published “as soon as possible,” U.K. Environment Minister Owen Paterson said after the meeting.
The U.K. proposed easing regulations on meat products and their labeling before the recent scandal involving horse meat discovered in beef products, a panel of lawmakers said.
In a report published today, Parliament’s Environment Committee criticized proposals that minced meat in the U.K. should be allowed higher fat and collagen content than is allowed in other member states, and that labels for loose meat products shouldn’t have to declare their meat content.
The Findus lasagnas were manufactured at a Luxembourg factory owned by French company Comigel, France’s consumer and anti-fraud office reported Feb. 9.
The U.K.’s Food Standard Agency said today no bute was found in Findus products containing horse meat. Still, of 206 horses that were slaughtered in the U.K. and checked between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, eight tested positive for the drug, and six of those may have entered the food chain in France, the FSA said.
The drug poses a very low risk to human health, the U.K. chief medical officer said in a statement. At the levels found, a person would have to eat 500 to 600 burgers a day made out of 100 percent horse meat to consume close to a human's daily dose, Professor Sally Davies said.
Comigel’s supplier was Spanghero SAS, which had bought the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader. The latter in turn sub-contracted a Dutch trader who sourced the meat from a slaughterhouse and a meat packer in Romania, according to the French regulator.
Carrefour SA, Casino Guichard Perrachon SA and four other French supermarket chains withdrew frozen foods including lasagna Bolognese. France plans to step up controls for wholesalers and importers as well as in supermarkets.
In Germany, discounter Real yesterday withdrew its own-brand lasagna after horse meat was found, while Kaiser Tengelmann confirmed that its A&P brand frozen lasagna was made by Comigel, Spiegel reported.
“It is becoming clear that this is an EU-wide problem that needs an EU-wide solution,” Ireland’s Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said.