'Yes we sold horse – but it was labelled correctly': Suspicions focus on abattoir linked to Romanian minister

Questions have been raised about a potential conflict of interest over family firm of millionaire Valentin Soneriu

As Prime Minister Victor Ponta was telling the world that Romania’s abattoirs were not to blame for the escalating horse-meat scandal, questions were being raised about a potential conflict of interest after it emerged that a company suspected of involvement by France belongs to the family of Romania’s deputy Minister of Agriculture.

Valentin Soneriu, a 31-year-old millionaire, joined the government only last month. His family’s wealth is estimated at €25m (£21m) and was built on the family catering firm, CarmOlimp, one of two Romanian companies suspected by France of supplying horsemeat labelled as beef that subsequently ended up in British supermarkets. Tonight Mr Soneriu’s colleagues in government were continuing to protest Romanian innocence and defend him personally.

CarmOlimp denied being involved in any fraud, but the anti-government newspaper Curentul pointed out that the investigation into its processes was particularly quick. The accounts from 2011 show the company’s sausage processing division recorded a turnover of €25m. It also owns 110 stores in Romania, dairy farms, pig and poultry farms, and an abattoir and production line for ready meals in Brasov, 200km north of Bucharest. CarmOlimp is one of the 20 largest meat processing companies in Romania.

The abattoir, on the edge of the Transylvanian mountains, employs almost 1,000 workers from the surrounding villages where the average monthly wage is just €200. During the communist era the site produced tractors, but now the abbatoir and adjoining factory send meat products right across Romania and beyond. “We are very surprised that we have been mentioned as part of this investigation,” Paul Soneriu, executive director of CarmOlimp, said yesterday. “Last year we sold 60 tons of horse meat to a Dutch-based company, but it was labelled as horse meat and all the documents were fine. Our Dutch partner emailed us to say that he would support us against any accusation that has been made.”

When questioned whether horse meat from Romania could have been mistaken for beef, Mr Soneriu replied: “We don’t believe that somebody could make such a mistake. You can see with your own eyes if a piece of meat is horse or it’s beef.”

Valentin Soneriu said in an interview shortly after being appointed to the government that he no longer held a position with CarmOlimp, but remained a shareholder.

Official investigators visited the abattoir over the weekend to check its supply-chain paperwork, and today Mr Ponta gave all Romanian meat processors a clean bill of health. Foreign media were invited to visit the site in Brasov yesterday, but last night no photographers were being allowed to film the production process. “There’s not enough time to be allowed access,” a spokesman said. According to the company, only between €0.5m and €1m of total turnover per year comes from selling horse-meat products.

Yesterday Mr Ponta denied that local companies were mislabelling horse as beef, instead pointing the finger at France.  “We don’t want to be treated as a ‘usual suspect’ by the EU,” he said. The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian Ciolos, himself a Romanian national, told journalists: “The EU does not yet have the evidence to incriminate a member country or a specific company.”

In Brasov residents said that horse meat is usually sold to traders that export it to Europe . “People get €4.5 per kilogram and from here, the horse meat is exported to countries like France or Bulgaria,” Dan, a 30-year-old villager, said, while driving his hay cart.

In Romania – which joined the EU in 2007 – local authorities in several regions have discovered that horse meat was being sold as beef. Recent inspections on the two main markets in Bucharest seized hundreds of kilograms of horse meat. But the stakes are high for one of the EU’s poorest countries. President Traian Basescu said on Sunday that Romania’s credibility could be damaged for “many years” if a Romanian supplier is found to be at fault.