IoS investigation: Horsemeat scandal reveals trail of shadowy suppliers

The journey from hoof to plate is becoming murkier as the meat industry finds new ways of cutting costs

No British consumer wanting to stay healthy would ever buy meat from a stranger in the street, but this weekend it appears that this, in effect, is precisely what the firms that put food on our supermarket shelves have been doing.

Their supplier may ostensibly be a company in France with a nice website and smart offices, but the meat is no more French than it is beef. It has been extruded through a supply chain that could hardly be more opaque had it been devised by money launderers. It ought now to be clear that the meat trade's supply chain can, when not rigorously policed, be a deliberately murky complexity of semi-regulated sources, abattoirs, suppliers, middlemen, imports, exports, labelling and relabelling.

Thus, it may say "beef" on the contract; it may even say it on the labels when the minced, boxed and refrigerated product is delivered, but, as The Independent on Sunday discovered yesterday, the route by which it came from hoof to plate means the meat bears about as much resemblance to beef as a chicken does to a kangaroo.

New details emerged yesterday of the labyrinthine route taken by the horsemeat that appeared as beef on British supermarket shelves. The meat originated in Romania from abattoirs where cows and horses are slaughtered and minced. It was imported to southern France by a company founded by the rugby-playing Spanghero brothers. It was sold on to another French company, Comigel in Metz, and re-shipped to a factory in neighbouring Luxembourg to make frozen meat dishes for supermarkets in 16 European Union countries. As yet unnamed intermediaries may also have been involved in the supply chain.

The French consumer minister, Benoît Hamon, gave an even more Byzantine account of the route taken by the meat. He said yesterday that preliminary investigations had shown that the produce had also passed through the hands of another French company called Poujol. "They bought the meat frozen from a Cypriot meat trader, who sublet part of the order to another trader in the Netherlands, who was supplied by an abattoir in Romania," Mr Hamon said.

He said the total value of the deal was believed to be more than €300,000. He said he had asked EU authorities and those in the Netherlands and Romania to co-operate in an urgent investigation to discover at what stage the "mistake or fraud" had occurred.

Earlier, the Spanghero company issued a statement admitting that it had imported the meat from Romania but insisted that it had passed it on untouched to the Luxembourg factory. The company said it would start a legal action against its Romanian supplier if the shipment was proved to have included horsemeat. However, a Romanian meat trade spokesman told the French media that it should have been obvious to the French firm, or firms, that it was horsemeat. "It looks different and it smells different," the spokesman said. "If you are in the trade, you have to know the difference."

An investigation was under way in France yesterday to establish at what stage in this international game of pass-the-parcel the horsemeat came to be labelled as beef. The investigators suspect that – at the very least – the French companies failed to apply the strict rules on the traceability of meat that were imposed in France during the BSE crisis in the 1990s. The two French companies involved, Comigel in Metz and A la Table de Spanghero at Castelnaudary in Aude in south-west France, say that they bought the meat, already in minced form, believing it to be 100 per cent beef.

However, the French anti-fraud agency – the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF) – said that its own investigations suggested that there was "fraud" at some stage in the process. At the very least, the agency said, the "meat had passed through the hands of several intermediaries in Europe without sufficient regard to traceability".

The French agriculture minister, Stéphane le Foll, said: "All fraud must be dealt with severely. The investigation must be completed as soon as possible."

The company that imported the meat from Romania, A la Table de Spanghero, was founded in 1970 by two rugby-playing brothers, Claude and Laurent Spanghero. The company was absorbed by the Lur Berri meat co-operative in 2009 and no longer has any connection with the Spanghero family.

Comigel started investigations last week after being informed by Findus in Britain that there "might be a problem". Comigel's president, Erick Lehagre, said on Friday that his company believed that the beef that he was buying from the Spanghero firm was French. When doubts arose, "Spanghero informed us that the meat came from a Romanian source," Mr Lehagre said. "We were able to establish that it came from abattoirs in Romania which slaughtered and minced both beef and horsemeat."

Sources in the French agri-industry said that the scandal could prove very damaging to a French meat industry which prides itself on the traceability of its produce. Meat crossing and re-crossing European borders was not a new phenomenon, but a shortage of beef and rising prices last year had encouraged meat-processors to seek new suppliers.

The sources said that there were fears that cheaper horsemeat could have been deliberately substituted for beef at an early stage in the supply chain to reduce costs and increase profits. This is what used to be called "adulteration": the watering down of milk, the putting of lard in butter, the bulking up of a product with a low-cost alternative. And there has certainly been no lack of incentive for the unscrupulous involved in the meat trade. The price of beef in Europe reached a new high last year, around the time when some of the malpractices now coming to light were probably being perpetrated.

The sheer scale of the present horsemeat crisis is now becoming apparent. Since 16 January, when 10 million suspect burgers were taken off UK shelves, almost every supermarket chain has had to take action, either as a precaution or because they were found to be unwittingly selling products labelled as beef which were, in part or whole, horse.

Nor is Britain alone. Products labelled as beef but containing horse DNA have been found in Ireland, Spain, Sweden and possibly the Netherlands as well. Comigel, the French firm which supplied Findus and Aldi with the fraudulent meat used in lasagne and spaghetti bolognese, is known to supply 16 EU countries.

Findus says its contract with Comigel specified beef and so, in that respect, the company is a much a victim of this saga as anyone. But there have been questions raised about the swiftness with which the firm acted once told by the French of the real content of the meat supplied, not least because of confusing information about who knew what.

The Labour MP Tom Watson said on Friday that he had obtained a letter from the company to retailers warning that a French-based supplier told it on 2 February that raw materials delivered to it since 1 August last year were "likely to be non-conform and consequently the labelling on finished products is incorrect". A spokesperson for Findus said yesterday: "Findus wants to be absolutely explicit that it was not aware of any issue of contamination with horsemeat last year. It was only made aware of a possible August 2012 date through a letter dated 2 February 2013 from the supplier Comigel. By then Findus was already conducting a full supply chain traceability review and had pro-actively initiated DNA testing."

This testing, industry sources said yesterday, began on 22 January and was prompted by the discovery of horse DNA in burgers produced by other companies. On 29 January, the test results confirmed horse DNA in the Findus lasagne. The company immediately stopped accepting supplies from Comigel, or distributing products made from what it supplied, and started what sources called a "full audit" of all supplies.

On 2 February, Findus received a letter from Comigel which said the French firm was not able to vouch for the "traceability of the raw product" from one of their sources. Findus says it was then that it issued to retailers a notice to withdraw all their beef lasagne.

Last Wednesday, Findus sent 18 samples to a lab in Germany and five to a UK one. The result came back the same day that horsemeat was present in the lasagne, and the firm immediately informed the Food Standards Agency. Findus said yesterday it is now taking legal advice, adding: "The early results from Findus UK's internal investigation strongly suggests that the horsemeat contamination in beef lasagne was not accidental."

And then there is the huge amount of slaughtered horse imported into Europe, some for pet food, some for human consumption – Italy is the continent's biggest market for it – some for ancillary non-food products. In 2011, 1.8 million tons of horsemeat was imported to France from Canada, with another 1.2 million tons coming from Mexico. The source of most of this is the US. France also slaughters 16,970 of its own horses, but the public health concern centres on meat originating not only from eastern and central Europe, but from the US.

On and 0ff the menu

* Italians are one of the largest consumers of horsemeat in the world. Mothers used to swear by it as a source of iron in their children's diet.

* During last year's London Olympics, Kazakhstan's sport agency flew in horsemeat for its squad of 114 to eat.

* Last year, the state of New Jersey adopted a law that banned both the slaughter of horses and the sale of horsemeat for human consumption.

* The taste of horsemeat is said by those who have knowingly tried it to be mid-way between that of beef and venison.

* Horse and donkey meat was regularly eaten in Yorkshire until the 1930s, say some authorities, and it was on sale around the country during the Second World War.

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