Horsemeat row not food safety issue: Brussels

February 12, 2013 - 3:45:18 am

French Junior Minister for Consumption Benoit Hamon (centre), Agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll (left) and Junior Minister for food-processing Guillaume Garot  at a press conference on the horsemeat scandal, in Paris, yesterday.

BRUSSELS: The European Commission said yesterday that Europe’s horsemeat scandal appeared at this stage to be a labelling problem and definitely not a question of food safety.

“We’re not talking about a food safety issue,” Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said on being queried at a news conference on the possibility of a British ban on EU meat exports.

“Nobody got sick as far as I know. It’s just a labelling issue. So at this stage a ban on anything would not be appropriate.”

Vincent, the spokesman for the EU’s health commissioner Tonio Borg, said however that no member state could unilaterally decide to suspend food imports.

At this stage, European Union nations caught up in the scandal were “in a fact-finding situation” trying to determine who had done what and since when, he stressed.

The Commission itself could only legally take action if there was proof of a health issue, he added.

Countries involved were working through the bloc’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), an EU-run information exchange system that served as a traceability system, Vincent added.

France and Britain called for the “criminals” who disguised horsemeat as beef to be tracked down, as Romania angrily denied it was to blame for the frozen food scandal spreading across Europe.

Britain’s food minister Owen Paterson said an “extensive” criminal conspiracy could be behind the scandal and said he believed warnings had been sent out to 16 different countries that might be affected.

“I very much hope that these legal processes do flush out the criminals because it is completely unacceptable that British consumers should be sold a product marked as one thing which actually contains something else,” he said.

French President Francois Hollande said there had been “unacceptable behaviour” and called for those responsible to be prosecuted. He also said that his advice to the French was to eat only meat from France.

Supermarket chains in Britain, France and Sweden have removed from their shelves packs of lasagne, other pasta dishes, shepherd’s pies and moussaka after it emerged that frozen food companies had used horsemeat instead of beef.

British supermarkets were the first to pull the products last week after French firm Comigel warned that the beef it supplied to the Findus frozen food firm —which sold its ready-to-eat meals to supermarkets — was suspect.

Comigel said it got its meat from another French firm, Spanghero, which said it was supplied from two abattoirs in Romania who allegedly passed horsemeat off as beef.

But Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta yesterday angrily denied his country was to blame.

“Romania cannot accept to be the usual suspect,” he told reporters. “I am very angry, to be very honest.”

“We have made verifications... There exists no violation of European rules and standards” by the two abattoirs, he said, while his agriculture minister insisted there had been no false labelling of meat. Ponta said Spanghero did not have a direct contract with Romanian firms and he called on European Union officials to find out where the fraud originated and who are the guilty parties.

He was speaking at a joint press conference with EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, who noted that the horsemeat scandal was not a public health scare but a case of fraud.

French ministers meanwhile prepared to hold a crisis meeting with key players in the meat industry on Monday, as French anti-fraud agents searched the premises of both Comigel and Spanghero.

Both these firms have denied any wrongdoing and said they will sue suppliers who duped them.

French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll warned that more trouble lay ahead if Europe’s complex system of wholesale meat trading was not reformed to make it simpler to trace the origin of food.

“We have to get out of this fog, because we can go on calling for traceability... but if the system is so murky, if the fog is so thick that we are all lost, then we will end up with big problems,” he told RTL radio. 

The head of France’s ANIA food industry association, Jean-Rene Buisson insisted his country’s regulatory system was “the best in the world”.

“We are not responsible for the fraud of one of our suppliers,” he told Europe 1 radio.

“The traceability of food products is not being called into question in this affair. We put in place the best system in the world after the ‘mad cow’ crisis which will enable us to find out in two or three days who is responsible,” he said. The French government has promised the results of an inquiry into the scandal by tomorrow.

Findus has said it will file a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horsemeat in its supply chain “was not accidental”.

Its Nordic branch said it planned to sue Comigel, which sells its products to customers in 16 countries, and its suppliers.

In Britain, where eating horsemeat is considered taboo, tests have found that some frozen ready meals produced in mainland Europe and labelled as processed beef actually contained up to 100 percent horsemeat.

But the country’s food minister dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat imports, describing the idea as a “panic measure”.

British authorities have said they are testing to see whether the horsemeat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.AFP