PARIS (AP) — The price, smell and color should have been clear tipoffs something was wrong with shipments of horsemeat that were fraudulently labeled as beef, French authorities said Thursday. The government pinned the bulk of the blame on a French wholesaler at the heart of a growing scandal in Europe.
Police in the U.K., meanwhile, announced the arrests Thursday of three men on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants inspected earlier this week by the country's Food Standards Agency.
The two separate developments were part of an escalating scare that has raised questions about food controls in the European Union — and highlighted how little consumers know about the complex trading operations that get food from producers to wholesalers to processers to stores and onto their dinner table.
Europol, the European Union police agency, is coordinating a broad continent-wide fraud investigation amid allegations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.
In Paris, Benoit Hamon, the government's consumer affairs minister, said it appeared that in the most prominent case fraudulent meat sales had been going on for several months, and reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. He did not name the countries or companies.
He said there was plenty of blame to go around, but most of it rested with Spanghero, a wholesaler based in southern France.
Officials at Spanghero denied knowingly buying and reselling horsemeat but French authorities immediately suspended their trading activities.
Hamon said Spanghero was one company in a chain that started with two Romanian slaughterhouses that says they clearly labeled their meat as horse.
The meat was then bought by a Cyprus-registered trader and sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands.
Spanghero bought the meat from the trader, then resold it to the French frozen food processor Comigel. The resulting food was marketed under the Sweden-based Findus brand as lasagna and other products as containing ground beef.
Hamon said Spanghero was well aware that the meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel.
"Spanghero knew," Hamon said. "One thing that should have attracted Spanghero's attention? The price."
Hamon said the meat from Romania cost far below the market rate for beef.
A representative for Spanghero said company officials have been interrogated by authorities, who have raided Spanghero headquarters several times in recent days, but no one has been arrested.
The representative insisted the company acted "in good faith" and that it never knew the meat it bought and sold was horsemeat. The representative said he was not authorized to be publicly named according to his contract with Spanghero.
He wouldn't comment on French authorities' insistence that Spanghero should have recognized the meat as horse by its price, smell and color.
Food processor Comigel was not blameless either, Hamon said, declaring that the paperwork from Spanghero had significant irregularities, including a failure to specify country of origin.
"And once the meat was defrosted, we can ask ourselves why Comigel didn't notice that the color and odor was not that of beef?" Hamon said.
Romanian food suppliers rejoiced that the blame for the frozen lasagna scandal has shifted away from Romanian slaughterhouses to companies in France — a country that prides itself on its cuisine and culinary culture and isn't usually caught up in food scandals.
Sorin Minea, the chief of Romalimenta, the Romanian food industry association, urged tough sanctions for the French companies. "Romania, small and ugly as it, respected all European legislation. In the U.K., legislation was not respected," he said. "I am sad that first we were accused and then there was an inquiry. We feel we are not part of the European family."
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