* Processed food market increasingly complex
* Consumers worried about little-regulated industry
* Britain: "This is a conspiracy"
* Lawmaker calls for ban on meat imports from EU
By Tim Castle and Maria Golovnina
LONDON, Feb 10 As Britons choke on discovering
they may have eaten horse that was imported as beef, and
ministers blame an "international criminal conspiracy", this new
scandal has exposed the sometimes murky labyrinth by which food
reaches Europe's dinner tables.
Lurid headlines reveal a culinary gulf between distaste for
the notion of horsemeat in Britain and its status as a delicacy
elsewhere in Europe. But as governments play down the health
risks, a greater impact may stem from a shattering of public
confidence in EU systems of labelling and quality control
introduced after previous threats hit the human food chain.
As details emerge of a complex network of slaughterhouses
and middlemen standing between the farm and the supermarkets
across Europe, France and Britain have vowed to punish those
found responsible for selling horsemeat purporting to be beef.
With DNA tests needed to tell the two kinds of flesh apart,
retailers and makers of processed meals complain of being duped
by suppliers; one French firm has pointed a finger at Romania.
"This is a conspiracy against the public," said British farm
minister Owen Paterson. "I've got an increasing feeling that it
is actually a case of an international criminal conspiracy."
Prime Minister David Cameron has called it "very shocking".
Adding to concerns are indications that some horsemeat,
perfectly edible in itself, may contain a drug known as bute - a
common, anti-inflammatory painkiller for sporting horses but
banned for animals intended for eventual human consumption.
Britain's Food Standards Agency said it was checking whether
horse carcasses exported from Britain contained phenylbutazone.
It said five such animals were sold abroad last year and it had
told foreign agencies. French media said the horses went there.
One firm hit by the British horsemeat scandal, frozen foods
group Findus, said it was recalling its beef lasagne product
after discovering they included horsemeat. Its French supplier,
Comigel, said the questionable meat came from EU member Romania.
An EU-wide alert has been sent out and governments debated
how to bring the increasingly complex industry under control.
Food experts say globalisation has brought benefits to food
supply, with exotic items now available from around the world
all year round, but it has also created a system that is so
complex it has increased the risks of adulteration, whether by
design, to use cheaper inputs, or through neglect of standards.
The "mad cow" crisis, which saw British beef banned in the
EU in the 1990s over fears of a degenerative brain disease, left
a legacy of tight controls on the identity of European animals,
intended to ensure the origins of fresh meat are traceable.
But in meat minced into processed product, while hygiene
checks are the norm, testing for something as seemingly basic as
which species it came from is complex and not widely undertaken.
Mystery over the contents of a sausage is far from new, but
mass production means any problem can escalate rapidly:
"Food adulteration has been going on for as long as it has
been prepared, for thousands of years," said Chris Elliot, a
professor working on food safety at Queen's University Belfast.
"We are at the stage now where whenever this adulteration
happens, it tends to happen on a very large scale, extremely
Doubts over quality controls in processed food could damage
sales across Europe, but the greatest impact of this scandal may
be in Britain, where assurances that horsemeat is safe have done
little to lessen the disgust felt by many, or suspicions that it
reflects another unpopular aspect of membership of the EU bloc.
One leading British lawmaker called for a ban on EU imports.
"Nabbed, stabbed and beaten: wild horses to go in our beef,"
ran the headline on Sunday's mass-selling Sun newspaper over a
story alleging cruelty to horses to be slaughtered in Romania.
From Queen Elizabeth downwards, Britons cast themselves as a
nation of horse lovers, treating sporting thoroughbreds with no
less reverence than human athletes and viewing the species as
whole with an affection rivaled only by that for the family dog.
There are only a handful of licensed horse abattoirs in
Britain, and these mostly export carcasses to the continent,
where Italy leads consumption tables with an unsentimental taste
for both horse and donkey; horsemeat also has a niche in the
cuisine of France and of many other European nations.
At a Sunday market in north London, where shoppers strolled
among rain-soaked stalls selling vegetables, sausage and cheeses
direct from the small farms that produce them, many said they
would buy fewer frozen ready-meals after the revelations.
That is good news for the likes of Amie Peters, who runs a
family beef burger business: "They've kept it secret from
everyone. It was concealed from the public. That's not nice,"
she said of equine DNA found in supermarket burgers, nodding to
her own grill and adding with a smile: "No horsemeat in these."
Distaste for horsemeat is widely shared across the
English-speaking world, although the U.S. Congress in 2011
overturned a five-year-old effective ban on slaughtering horses
Tracing processed meat back to its source is difficult in
Europe's complex market, and the path from abattoirs where cows
and horses are slaughtered and minced to people's dinner tables
often meanders through a confusing chain of middle companies.
Last week's problems for Findus came less than a month after
British supermarket Tesco and fast food outlet Burger
King found horsemeat in beef burgers from Ireland.
French officials tracing the contamination of the Findus
beef lasagne said a Luxembourg factory had been supplied by the
French firm Poujol, which had bought the meat frozen from a
Cypriot trader, who in turn had subcontracted the order to a
Dutch trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir.
However, Comigel, a frozen foods producer based in eastern
France, told a newspaper it had bought the meat from another
French company, supplied from a Romanian abattoir.
In Romania, officials said one of the two Romanian abattoirs
suspected to have provided horsemeat had been cleared of all
suspicion: "I believe that, even though the investigation isn't
finished, that everything left the country properly and
officially," Constantin Savu of Romania's food safety authority
was quoted as saying by state news agency Agerpres on Sunday.
"I find it hard to believe that such errors could exist."
In France, six big retailers said they were recalling
lasagne and other products suspected to be mislabelled.
Britain's Paterson summoned leading food retailers and
representatives of food processors to an emergency meeting at
his office at the weekend to discuss the crisis.
Anne McIntosh, who chairs the parliamentary food and
environment committee, called for a temporary import ban on
processed and frozen meats from the other 26 EU states.
"My concern is that consumer confidence will have collapsed
across the European Union," McIntosh, from Cameron's
Conservative party, told the BBC on Sunday.
"We seem to be no clearer as to what the source of this
contamination is, or whether the supply was ever destined for
human consumption. Is this a fraud of such a massive scale that
it should never have entered the human food chains?"
(Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie in Bucharest and Leigh
Thomas in Paris; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Alastair