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EU ministers hold crisis talks over horse meat scandal

EU ministers hold crisis talks over horse meat scandal
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 9:47am

As a scandal over the discovery of horse meat in products labeled as beef widens, European ministers are meeting for talks in Belgium on Wednesday on how to restore badly dented consumer confidence.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said he was following the situation "very closely."

The European Commission is working with the French, Romanian, Dutch, Luxembourg and British authorities and has called an emergency meeting on the issue of food chains for Friday, Borg said in a statement.

"The EU food safety system is one of the safest in the world," he said, pointing to its rules on traceability.

"I hope that the national investigations will uncover soon the culprits."

The talks in Brussels, Belgium, come a day after UK police and health officials raided a slaughterhouse and meat company as part of the ongoing investigation into how horse meat ended up in purported beef products.

The slaughterhouse, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, is believed to have supplied horse carcasses to a Welsh firm called Farmbox Meats Ltd., which then sold the meat as beef for kebabs and burgers.

Authorities have suspended operations at both facilities and seized all remaining meat and company files, which include a client list. Neither company was immediately available for comment.

"I ordered an audit of all horse-producing abattoirs in the UK after this issue first arose last month and I was shocked to uncover what appears to be a blatant misleading of consumers," Andrew Rhodes, Food Standards Agency director of operations, said Tuesday.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson called the revelations "absolutely shocking."

"It's totally unacceptable if any business in the UK is defrauding the public by passing off horse meat as beef," he said. "I expect the full force of the law to be brought down on anyone involved in this kind of activity."

In a written statement to parliament Wednesday, Paterson said both the businesses raided had a legitimate trade in horse meat, "but investigations so far indicate that horse meat has been used in UK produce as though it is beef."

Horse meat was discovered in products that are supposed to be 100% beef sold in Sweden, the United Kingdom and France.

They included lasagna sold by frozen food giant Findus and spaghetti bolognese sold by UK supermarket giant Tesco, both made by French supplier Comigel.

While authorities said there is no immediate cause for health concerns, the discovery was a new shock to an industry already reeling from a bombshell last month, when Irish investigators found horse and pig DNA in numerous hamburger products.

Investigations are under way in France, Sweden and Britain.

The supply chain being studied includes more countries, including Romania, which has denied any responsibility in the scandal.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Monday that the two Romanian slaughterhouses initially suspected to have links to the horse meat scandal never had direct contact with Comigel and haven't done anything illegal.

"This tendency to throw the responsibility as far away as possible, eventually to the new members (of the European Union), to countries that might have a weaker PR policy, is something that bothers me," he said.

Minister of Agriculture Daniel Constantin said there is no evidence that false horse meat labeling occurred in Romania.

Comigel has not responded to CNN's requests for comment. But CEO Erick Lehagre told French news agency Agence France-Presse on Sunday that a French supplier "fooled" his company. "We were victims," he said, according to AFP.

Earlier this month, Britain's National Beef Association called for more specific labeling of meat products and asked that the words "United Kingdom origin" be printed on packaging.

UK food businesses have been told to test all their beef products for "authenticity" and report back to UK authorities by Friday.

UK supermarket chain Waitrose said Wednesday that it had "in recent weeks" removed frozen beef meatballs from its shelves after testing indicated that two batches may contain some pork.

However, tests revealed no horse meat in its meatballs or frozen beefburgers, it said.

CNN's Susannah Palk and Kendra Wates in London and journalist Liliana Ciobanu in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.

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