U.K. Minister Says Horse-Meat Substitution Probably Criminal

U.K. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said “criminal substitution” was probably to blame for horse meat discovered in packaged meals meant to contain beef.

“It looks as if the problem is limited to processed beef,” Paterson said in an interview on BBC television 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 threat to human health. The U.K. Food Standards Agency has asked Findus Group Ltd., which has found horse meat in some of its frozen products, to test for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, known as “bute,” which in large doses may pose a risk to humans.

So far, the U.K. “has not got evidence there is a serious threat to human health,” and blocking imports would be a “panic measure,” Paterson told Sky News in a subsequent interview. “I’m describing this as a fraud on the public.” He added that the meat may have originated from Romania.

Beef products from French supplier Comigel have also been found to contain horse. In France yesterday, six supermarket chains, including Casino Guichard Perrachon SA and Carrefour SA, said they had withdrawn Findus and Comigel products from their shelves because of mislabeling.

Lasagna, Moussaka

The Federation du Commerce retail group said the products posed no health risk, citing the French government. Withdrawn products include frozen lasagna bolognaise, moussaka, cannelloni and hachis parmentier.

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.

Paterson repeated in both interviews that the scandal was one of people being sold incorrectly labeled food, rather than a health issue.

The Food Standards Agency has given food makers a week to test all their beef products after a range of lasagnes produced by Findus was found to contain more than 60 percent horse meat. The government body set a deadline of Feb. 15 for food producers to test for horse meat and report the results.