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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links