BRUSSELS—Europe-wide tests of “beef” products conducted after the region’s horse-meat scandal found that nearly 5% were contaminated with horse meat, and the percentage was sharply higher in a few countries, especially France and Greece.
The European Union, Switzerland and Norway organized the tests in February after horse-meat DNA was found in products labeled as beef in a number of countries, prompting a public outcry, criminal investigations and pledges from authorities to discover whether the presence of horse meat in Europe’s beef supply is widespread. The authorities found 200 positive samples out of 4,497 tested, or 4.4%.
Nearly a quarter of all positive tests in the 27 EU nations occurred in France, home to a food processor, Spanghero, that shipped large amounts of horse meat found in frozen lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese and other beef dishes in the U.K. and elsewhere. Greek samples accounted for nearly 20% of all EU positive tests. Around 13% of samples were positive in both countries, the highest rate in Europe.
In a separate round of tests, less than 1% of all horse-meat samples tested positive for
phenylbutazone, known as “bute,” a painkiller used on animals that is a health risk for humans.
“Today’s findings have confirmed that this is a matter of food fraud and not of food safety,” said Tonio Borg, the EU health commissioner. “In the coming months, the commission will propose to strengthen the controls along the food chain in line with lessons learned.”
The commission, the EU’s executive arm, could seek new legal authority that would give it the power to require action from member states to fight fraud in the food chain, commission spokesman Frédéric Vincent said.
The horse-meat scandal offered a window into the complex supply chains that move food ingredients from farms across Europe, through trading firms, processing plants and ultimately to packaged food products on supermarket shelves. The horse meat that found its way to U.K. supermarkets originated from slaughterhouses in Romania; at various points, it moved through a warehouse in the Netherlands owned by a Cypriot firm called Draap Trading, Spanghero’s facility in southwestern France, the French food-processing firm Comigel SAS and finally to the frozen-food company Findus Group.
Comigel and Findus have pointed the finger at their suppliers for mislabeling horse meat as beef, while Draap and Spanghero have said the meat they shipped was labeled as horse meat. Authorities in several countries are conducting criminal investigations. The U.K. has arrested three men in a separate horse-meat investigation who worked at processing plants in Wales and West Yorkshire.
The French government said its positive tests were particularly high because it focused on suppliers and products that were already suspected of mislabeling horse meat.The government said it would propose EU-wide rules that will strengthen penalties for food-chain fraud to a maximum of five years in prison and 10% of a company’s annual revenue.
The animal-protection group Humane Society International said European governments should have also tested for other common medications administered to horses that pose a health risk to humans.
“Testing for just one of the many drugs banned for use in animals that enter the food chain falls short of a precautionary and thorough approach to addressing fraud and ensuring food safety standards are met,” said Joanna Swabe, Humane Society International’s EU director.