Netherlands says 50,000 tonnes of beef may contain horse

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AFP) - The Netherlands' food watchdog on Wednesday asked hundreds of companies across Europe, supplied by a Dutch wholesaler suspected of mixing beef and horsemeat, to check 50,000 tonnes of suspect meat.

The latest saga comes after a vast food scandal that erupted across Europe after horsemeat was found in supposedly pure beef ready-made meals and burgers in Britain and Ireland.

The organisation sent a letter to 130 Dutch companies who were supplied with possible horse-contaminated beef from the Selten company asking them to "take it off the market as a precautionary measure" and "verify all products".

The NVWA said that although the meat's origin could not be guaranteed, "there are no signs of a danger to public health." Around 370 companies across Europe could also be affected, the organisation said.

"The companies have possibly already processed the meat and sold it," the government's NVWA food and consumer watchdog said in a statement.

"We estimate it's about 50,000 tonnes of meat," it added.

NVWA spokeswoman Esther Filon told AFP that the meat was supplied between January 2011 and February 2013 across Europe.

Dutch public television NOS reported that the suspect meat could be on supermarket shelves, notably in frozen food.

Because the meat was supplied in 2011, much of it has been eaten already, the NOS reported.

The NVWA has notified authorities in France, Germany and Spain through Europe's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed to inform around 370 buyers supplied by Selten of its decision.

The companies have two weeks to report back to the NVWA, who has also informed health authorities in France, Germany and Spain.

Dutch officials in February raided the Selten meat processing plant in the south of the Netherlands on suspicion that it was mixing horsemeat with beef and selling it as pure beef.

Since the problem was first discovered in Ireland in January, governments have scrambled to figure out how and where the mislabelling of meat happened in the sprawling chain of production spanning abattoirs and meat suppliers across Europe.

The scandal has drawn in numerous large food companies including Swiss food giant Nestle and Swedish furniture giant Ikea, which last week stopped selling frozen elk lasagne after a batch was found to contain traces of pork.

Ikea began reintroducing meatballs in its restaurants worldwide last month after horsemeat was found in the product in February.

Dutch politicians reacted with shock to the NVWA's announcement Wednesday, with the Animal Party (PvdD) leader saying she would ask for a parliamentary debate on Thursday.

Marianne Thieme said she wanted a debate to find out how the NVWA was unaware of the meat's origin.

"This is massive, 50,000 tonnes of meat, how many meals is that? How will all of this be traced?" Dutch news agency ANP quoted her as saying.

"Consumers need to know what they are eating," said Sjoera Dikkers of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) who is in a ruling coalition with Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

Dutch Consumer Union spokesman Babs van der Staac told AFP: "This shows that extra measures have to be taken, notably with better checks and better communication for consumers to know which products and supermarkets are concerned." Selten consists of two companies: Wiljo Import and Export and Meat Wholesaler Willy Selten.

The website of Selten's wholesale meat company, based in southern city Oss, says it is "an internationally operating company, specialising in boning and cutting beef" that employs about 100 people.

It handles imports from various European countries and delivers to retailers, meat wholesalers, butchers, the meat processing industry and supermarkets throughout Europe.

The plant was probed as part of a criminal investigation by the prosecutor's office and the NVWA.

It is suspected of fraud and money laundering, the prosecutor's office said at the time.

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