LONDON // The European horse meat scandal has deepened with an admission for the first time from the world's largest food company, Nestle, that traces of horse DNA had been found in its beef pasta products.
Nestle, which had previously insisted its output was untainted, was forced to change its position after carrying out its own tests. These identified more than one per cent horse DNA in two chilled products, Buitoni Beef Ravioli and Beef Tortellini, sold in Italy and Spain.
The traces of horse DNA were small, the company said the relevant authorities had been informed and the tainted meals have been withdrawn, as has Lasagnes à la Bolognaise Gourmandes, a frozen Nestle product supplied to French caterers.
Still, the involvement of Nestle, a Swiss-owned multinational that markets a vast range of products including baby food, coffee, confectionery and dairy items, represents a severe blow to hopes by European governments for a quick end to a controversy that has severely damaged confidence in the continent's food supply.
Between 1962 and 2000, Nestle owned Findus, one of the food companies at the heart of the scandal after horse meat was found in its beef lasagne sold in the UK, France and Sweden and shepherd's pie and moussaka distributed in France.
In a statement, Nestle said it was suspending deliveries of all finished products made using beef supplied by a German business, HJ Schypke, itself a subcontractor of a Belgian supplier, JBS Toledo.
"Our tests have found traces of horse DNA in two products made from beef supplied by HJ Schypke," the statement said. It added that the levels exceeded the one per cent threshold used by the UK's Food Standards Agency to indicate "likely adulteration or gross negligence".
"We want to apologise to consumers and reassure them that the actions being taken to deal with this issue will result in higher standards and enhanced traceability."
Horse meat carries no stigma in some European countries, where its relative cheapness makes it an attractive alternative to beef. In France, for example, many towns have boucheries chevalines - butchers or market stalls specialising in horsemeat. Even there, however, the fraudulent aspect, in which consumers have been misled about what they are buying and eating, is viewed seriously.
Media attention has focused on the activities of a Dutch meat trader said in some reports to be emerging as a central figure in the affair.
Jan Fasen, a director of a company based in Cyprus - its name, Draap, written backwards, is Dutch for horse - is reported to have been convicted in the Dutch town of Breda in January 2012 of passing off horse meat as halal beef.
Mr Jasen has told the British newspaper, The Guardian, he bought horse meat from two slaughterhouses in Romania and sold it to food processors in France. He insisted the consignment was clearly labelled as horse meat.
But the French minister for consumer affairs, Benot Hamon, said this week officials wished to know more about Draap's trading. The Dutch broadcaster NOS said Mr Fasen was jailed for a year in last year's case after being convicted of falsifying documents to deceive customers about horse meat imported from South America.
France's interest stems from Draap's role as suppliers to the French company. Findus-marketed lasagne containing horse meat is alleged to come from the Luxembourg factory of another French company, Comigel, which was supplied by Spanghero.
Spanghero insists it is not guilty of any wrongdoing, or knowledge of wrongdoing. The Romanians have also protested innocence, suggesting the involvement of international criminals.
The scandal has not gone unnoticed beyond Europe. The British media have reported in disapproving tones on an Australian official's open letter, published in newspapers, warning visitors to the UK and expatriates to stick to "guaranteed Australian-only sources"
Bill Muirhead, agent general for South Australia based at the country's high commission in London, wrote: "If you are worried about the quality and provenance of meat-based foodstuffs that you purchase/have purchased in the UK, our current advice is that you should NOT consume them."
The message was reinforced by tongue-in-cheek comments about the claimed superiority of Australian food processes. "From fish to fowl and from field to fork, we put heart and soul into our food - in the figurative sense - and nothing more. Our food packs enough punch not to need the extra horsepower. "
The British environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said UK retailers had shown "absolute determination" to restore public confidence.
Other European governments have tried to reassure consumers that horse meat poses little or no health risk.
However, concern has also been raised by the presence in some tested foodstuffs of traces of phenylbutazone, a drug formerly used in the treatment of the rheumatoid arthritis in humans. It is also a painkiller for horses but is now banned from the food chain and recommended for human medicinal use in only limited circumstances.
In a series of reassurances and explanations about the horsemeat scandal, Britain's Food Standards Agency says on its website: "On the basis of the evidence, there is no food safety risk to consumers from these products.
"There is nothing about horse meat which makes it any more or less safe than other meat products and the meat products were supplied to the retailers by approved establishments."
* Additional reporting by Reuters