Horsemeat scandal spreads as French retailers pull foods

PARIS (AFP) - The Europe-wide scandal over horsemeat sold as beef spread Sunday as leading French retailers pulled products from their shelves and threats of legal action flew.

France promised the results of an urgent inquiry into the scandal within days and the government announced crisis talks with meat industry representatives on Monday night.

As Britain dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat, producers and distributors insisted they had been deceived about the true nature of the meat and vowed to take legal action.

Several ranges of prepared food have been withdrawn in Britain, France and Sweden after it emerged that frozen food companies had been using horsemeat instead of beef in their lasagne and other pasta dishes, as well as shepherd's pies and moussakas.

Reflecting the complexity of European food supply chains, the meat has been traced from France through Cyprus and The Netherlands to Romanian abattoirs.

Officials in Bucharest have also announced an urgent inquiry, while President Traian Basescu feared his country "would be discredited for many years" if a Romanian meat supplier is found to be at fault.

French retailers Auchan, Casino, Carrefour, Cora, Monoprix and Picard announced on Sunday they were withdrawing products provided by frozen food giant Findus and French producer Comigel over the horsemeat concerns.

The retailers said the withdrawal was the result of "labelling non-compliance in regards to the nature of the meat" in the products.

Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said French authorities would have the preliminary results of their inquiry into the scandal by Wednesday and that France "will not hesitate" to take legal action if there is evidence that companies were knowingly duping consumers.

His ministry said Hamon and other senior officials would meet with "all players in the industry" for crisis talks on the scandal on Monday.

Findus has said it will lodge a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horsemeat in its supply chain "was not accidental", and its Nordic branch said Sunday it planned to sue Comigel and its suppliers.

"This is a breach of contract and fraud," said the head of Findus Nordic, Jari Latvanen. "Such behaviour on the part of a supplier is unacceptable." Comigel head Erick Lehagre told AFP the company had been fooled by its suppliers and vowed to seek compensation.

"We were victims and it's now clear that the problem was not with Findus nor with Comigel," he said. "This represents a very heavy loss for us and we will seek compensation."

In Britain, where tests found that some frozen ready meals produced in mainland Europe and labelled as processed beef actually contained up to 100 per cent horsemeat, food minister Owen Paterson dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat imports.

"Arbitrary measures like that are not actually going to help. Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market," he said on Sky News television, describing the idea as a "panic measure".

But he warned that the government would impose a ban 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," Mr Paterson said.

He said he feared a "criminal conspiracy", while the British press was full of lurid speculation that organised crime groups were at the root of the scandal.

Ms Anne McIntosh, the head of the British parliament's food affairs scrutiny panel, had called for the ban, saying a moratorium was needed until "we can trace the source of the contamination and until we can establish whether there has been fraud".

The scandal has had particular resonance in Britain, where eating horsemeat is considered taboo. British authorities have also said they are testing to see whether the horsemeat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.

The Findus meals were assembled by Comigel using meat that was provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France. Comigel supplies products to companies in 16 countries.

Spanghero in turn is said to have obtained the meat from Romania via a Cypriot dealer who had subcontracted the deal to a trader in The Netherlands.

A Romanian food industry official pointed the finger of blame at the French importer, saying it was up to that company to verify the meat.

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