LONDON (Reuters) - British and European Union officials will try to work out on Wednesday how to contain a scandal over horsemeat sold as beef which has shocked consumers and exposed flaws in European systems of food safety control.
The scandal, affecting a growing number of European countries and retailers, began in Ireland when its food safety authority discovered horsemeat in frozen beef burgers.
The revelations raised questions about the food supply chain and prompted governments to send out an EU-wide alert.
Owen Paterson, Britain’s Environment Secretary, told parliament on Tuesday he would meet EU officials in Brussels on Wednesday to work out an action plan.
“It is clear from my conversations with European ministers and Commissioner (Tonio) Borg that the European Commission recognises the urgency of the current incidents,” he said
The issue first came to light on January 15 when during routine tests the Food Safety Authority in Ireland discovered horsemeat in frozen beef burgers produced by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer.
It has caused particular anguish in Britain, where eating horse flesh in virtually taboo.
Concern grew last week when the British unit of frozen foods group Findus began recalling its beef lasagne on advice from its French supplier, Comigel, after tests showed concentrations of horsemeat in a range from 60 to 100 percent.
Food experts say globalisation has helped the industry grow but has also given rise to a complex system which has raised the risk of adulteration, either by those looking to fraudulently pass off cheaper products, or by neglect.
Mark Woolfe, a former senior food safety official, said the European Commission’s decision to reclassify a product which closely resembled mince as “mechanically separated meat” had forced suppliers to seek cheap alternatives elsewhere.
“The FSA (Food Standards Agency) bullied by the Commission issued a moratorium on desinewed meat, which was a perfectly good ingredient for value products,” he told reporters.
“Manufacturers who were using that for value products had to leave the UK food chain and go and look at overseas suppliers at a price similar to desinewed meat or even lower.”
Paterson has said Britain would consider import bans if any health risk was found, although officials have stressed the contaminated products posed no immediate danger to the public.
More cases are expected to emerge during tests on processed beef products in Britain, with results due on Friday.
Paterson, who is meeting senior figures involved in the food chain and Britain’s Food Standards Agency later on Tuesday, said it was vital that consumers had confidence in the food and drink industry, the largest manufacturing sector which contributed 90 billion pounds gross value to the British economy in 2010.
However, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents 80 percent of Britain’s retail industry, said public attitude did not appear to have greatly changed, although people were being more selective in their choice of beef burgers.
On Sunday, French supermarkets pulled several products supplied by Findus and Comigel. Tesco said it had found horse DNA exceeding 60 percent in some of its own-brand frozen spaghetti bolognese meals withdrawn from stores last week.
Both France and Britain have said the mislabelling was a result of criminal attempts to defraud customers and they will punish those responsible.
Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Costas Pitas; Editing by Angus MacSwan