Complex supply chain from British and French supermarkets is masking the source of Euro meat contamination. Omar Karmi reports from London
Donkeys may have also been on menu as Euro horsemeat blame game begins
LONDON // The trail leads from British and French supermarkets, through Irish suppliers and a Dutch food trader to a Romanian slaughterhouse - making it difficult to establish exactly how horsemeat disguised as beef ended up in shops across Europe.
What at first seemed a British problem has rapidly grown into a continent-wide scandal affecting as many as 16 countries, which could trigger an avalanche of lawsuits, according to politicians.
To top it off, it has emerged that it may not only be a horsemeat scandal. One European MP has suggested that donkeymeat may have found its way into foods ranging from burgers to frozen lasagne.
The British government has also acknowledged that pork DNA has been found in a selection of meat pies labelled as halal.
France and the UK have been investigating the horsemeat contamination, while Sweden removed all ready-made meals made by the implicated companies from supermarket shelves.
Jose Bove, the vice-president of the European Parliament agriculture committee, told Britain's Independent newspaper on Sunday that Romania's enforcement last year of the country's law banning animals such as horses and donkey from the roads may have sent "millions" of the animals to the abattoir.
Food industry officials suggested that as a result, donkeymeat may also have found its way into the ready-made meals from the Swedish-owned food giant Findus in Scandinavia, which was supplied with meat by Comigel, a French company.
But with fingers pointing at his country's slaughterhouses, Victor Ponta, Romania's prime minister, offered an angry defence yesterday. And the country's president, Traian Basescu Ponta, said on Sunday that the data showed "no breach" of European law by Romanian firms. There was fraud, he said, but not from Romania.
A French investigation - the preliminary results of which will be published tomorrow - has established that Comigel got its meat through middlemen. As such, Mr Ponta said, the company did not have a direct contract with Romanian companies, and suggested it should have checked where it supply came from.
Mr Ponta added that he was "very angry" at the suspicion being cast on Romania.
Britain's environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said yesterday legal actions were imminent around Europe in what he called a "straight case" of fraud.
He dismissed, however, calls for a British moratorium on importing EU meat, saying the UK was bound by EU rules and that in any case, "arbitrary" measures would not help.
A ban would be considered if the issue moved from a case of fraud to one of public health, he added.
There were fears in Britain that horsemeat might contain a veterinary drug, phenylbutazone, that could be harmful to humans but tests carried out so far have been negative.
In France, meanwhile, the government has already threatened legal action. Benoit Hamon, the minister of consumer affairs, told Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday that France would not hesitate to take legal action against companies found to be knowingly misleading consumers.
Seven French supermarkets on Sunday followed six of their British counterparts in clearing their shelves of Findus and Comigel products.
Findus announced on Sunday that it would take legal action against Comigel for breach of contract.
Comigel may look further down the chain to see who it can sue.
Another French company, Poujol, has been identified as possibly supplying Comigel the meat through Cypriot and Dutch traders.
It was all too much for Ada Johns, 73, who was yesterday shopping in a South London branch of Tesco, one of those supermarkets where horsemeat had been found in some ready-made meals. She said she missed the days when she knew where her food came from and added that she would no longer buy ready-made meals of any description, even though they were "so convenient".
It was not the horsemeat per se, she said - a delicacy in some European countries, is very decidedly off the British menu - "it's the principle - I don't like being lied to".
Anyway, she added, traditional home cooking was "probably healthier" than microwave dinners.