By STEPHEN CASTLE and DOUGLAS DALBY New York Times
LONDON — Few things divide British eating habits from those of Continental Europe as clearly as a distaste for consuming horse meat, so news that many Britons have unknowingly done so has prompted alarm among shoppers and plunged the country’s food industry into crisis.
In some cases, Findus’s beef lasagna was found to contain 100 percent horse meat. A supplier raised concerns about the meat.
A trickle of discoveries of horse meat in hamburgers, starting in Ireland last month, has turned into a steady stream of revelations, including, on Friday, that lasagna labeled beef from one international distributor of frozen food, Findus, contained in some cases 100 percent horse meat.
The widening scandal has now touched producers and potentially millions of consumers in at least five countries — Ireland, Britain, Poland, France and Sweden — and raised questions of food safety and oversight, as well as the possibility of outright fraud in an industry with a history of grave, if episodic, lapses despite similarly episodic efforts at stricter regulation and reform. Already, tens of millions of hamburgers from several suppliers have been recalled.
The growing scale of the problem became clear this week when the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Alan Reilly, said that meat was being deliberately mislabeled. “We are no longer talking about trace amounts,” he told RTE, the national broadcaster. “We are talking about horse meat. Somebody, someplace, is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger manufacturing industry. We don’t know exactly where this is happening.”
On Friday, he amplified concerns about the scope of the scandal. “It’s not just confined, as we thought initially, to Ireland,” he said. “This has spread to France, to Luxembourg, to the U.K.; Poland is involved and the Netherlands. So it really is a Europeanwide problem that we have.”
Meat from horses is no more harmful than that from cattle, though there were some unsubstantiated fears that phenylbutazone, a veterinary drug, could find its way into the food chain. But at the very least, the mislabeling has called into question whether consumers can be assured of what is going into their food.
The labeling of horse meat as beef has breached one of the great culinary taboos of Britain and Ireland, two countries that pride themselves on their love of certain animals, particularly horses. The fact that the source of the meat appears to have been mainland Europe, where the consumption of horse meat is far more common, has raised suspicions of fraud because beef is more expensive than meat from horses.
Though public health is not at issue now, government oversight is, and the latest developments have echoes of earlier European food safety crises, including mad cow disease in Britain and dioxin in eggs and poultry in Belgium. Those tended to mushroom once investigators traced products through the Continent’s complex web of producers, food makers and suppliers.
That has fueled worries about what exactly has been going into cheaper hamburgers consumed by the millions in British schools, hospitals and prisons, leaving regulators, politicians and companies scrambling to safeguard their reputations, and millions of dollars in earnings and investment.
Politicians, meanwhile, have been challenged to say whether they would now eat a hamburger lurking in the back of their freezer, or could guarantee that all school meals are free of horse meat.
“This is a very shocking story; it is completely unacceptable” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said in Brussels. “This isn’t really about food safety; it’s about effective food labeling; it’s about proper retail practice. And people will be very angry to find out they have been eating horse when they thought they were eating beef.”
Findus said it withdrew its lasagna after Comigel, its French supplier, raised concerns about the type of meat used. The companies maintained that food safety was not at risk, but some supermarkets have also removed Comigel products. On Friday, Findus extended its recall to Sweden.
Adding to the frenzy, one British lawmaker, Tom Watson, published excerpts from a letter he said was sent by Findus to one retailer suggesting that products supplied as long ago as August might have been affected. Findus, which is owned by the private equity firm Lion Capital, would not comment on that claim but, in a statement, said it was “sorry that we have let people down” and was “acting to make sure this cannot happen again.”
Still, Mr. Reilly, Ireland’s food safety executive, described the latest findings as “very serious” for Findus and other major manufacturers. He said that investigations into the presence of horse meat in processing plants in Ireland were continuing and that these included tests of beef products other than hamburgers.
Earlier, Irish food inspectors revealed that some horse meat had been found in burgers stocked by a number of British supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl. The meat was supplied by two plants in Ireland. After an estimated 10 million hamburgers were removed from supermarket shelves in Ireland and Britain, Poland was identified as the source of that horse meat.
The Irish agriculture minister, Simon Coveney, said he had instructed the police to join an inquiry conducted by his department’s special investigation unit after tests this week confirmed 75 percent equine DNA in a raw material ingredient at the Rangeland Foods processing plant in County Monaghan. It was the fifth such instance at processing plants across Ireland over the last month.
The scandal may have broken just as some Britons were starting to reconsider their disdain for horse meat. Frederic Berkmiller, a French chef who serves horse at the restaurant L’Escargot Bleu in Edinburgh, said the meat had proved popular with customers since it was put on the menu two and a half years ago.
But he added an important caveat. “The purchaser has the right to know what they are buying,” he said.
Stephen Castle reported from London, and Douglas Dalby from Dublin.