French horsemeat scandal firm resumes work as ban eased

PARIS (AFP) - The French firm that sparked a Europe-wide food scandal by allegedly passing off 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef was allowed on Monday to resume production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals.

But Spanghero, whose horsemeat found its way into 4.5 million "beef" products sold across Europe, will no longer be allowed to stock frozen meat, Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll told AFP.

Upholding that ban means it cannot act as middleman between abattoirs and food-processing companies, the situation which allegedly allowed it to change labels on horsemeat and sell it on as beef.

The firm's sanitary licence was suspended last Thursday after it was accused of passing off huge quantities of mislabelled meat over a period of six months.

France's DGCCRF anti-fraud office concluded after an initial inquiry that 500 tonnes of that horsemeat were sent to French firm Comigel, whose frozen meals were sold to 28 different companies in 13 European states.

Le Foll said the results of a full inquiry into the activities of Spanghero - where experts have been carrying out inspections at its plant in the south-western town of Castelnaudary - would be ready by Friday.

"At this point, 80 per cent of the total meat stock has been verified, the work continues for the remaining 20 per cent," he said.

His ministry said its inspectors confirmed the DGCCRF's findings that labels on horsemeat had been changed by Spanghero to pass it off as beef. The DGCCRF's criminal investigation into the wider horsemeat scandal is continuing.

Spanghero on Friday again insisted it was not responsible for the mislabelling that has seen supermarket chains across the continent pull millions of suspect food products from their shelves.

"I don't know who is behind this, but it is not us," said Spanghero boss Barthelemy Aguerre, adding that the accusations were putting his 300 workers' jobs on the line. "I will prove our innocence." Union leaders at Spanghero had warned that revoking its licence would put the company out of business.

Concerns about horsemeat first emerged in mid-January when Irish authorities found traces of horse in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco and Aldi.

The scandal then intensified when Comigel alerted Findus this month to the presence of horsemeat in the meals it had made for the food giant and which were on sale in Britain.

Since then, supermarket chains have removed millions of "beef" products as tests are carried out to detect horsemeat, which is eaten in many European countries but is considered taboo in Britain.

Horsemeat in "beef" ready-to-eat meals has so far been confirmed in products found in Britain, Ireland, France, Austria, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Most of the mislabelled products were made by Comigel.

The scandal spread on Monday to Finland, where two ready-made meals sold at German discount chain Lidl - canned beef goulash and tortellini bolognese - were found to contain horsemeat.

Lidl said it was also pulling the products from its shops in Sweden.

The European Union, seeking to reassure nervous consumers that their food is safe and to end the horsemeat scandal, on Friday agreed the immediate launch of tests for horse DNA in meat products.

Germany said on Monday it planned to tighten checks and sanctions on food production under an action plan to counter the scandal.

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