Mafia-like groups may be behind the contamination of processed beef products, in a scandal which is spreading across Europe.
Britain’s Daily Mirror has suggested ruthless criminal gangs have been buying horses for as little as £10 each in Romania, which then entered the human food chain.
It alleged that vets have been bribed to provide relevant paperwork to pass the horses off as legitimate produce.
According to the The Mirror, investigators are probing potential links between the Romanian crooks and meat processing plants across Europe.
The allegation surfaces as the list of tainted beef products grows. Several products are reported to have been pulled from French supermarket freezers.
The latest in Britain was Tesco’s Everyday Spaghetti Bolognase, three samples of which contained more than 60 per cent horse meat. The product had been pulled from shelves a week ago as it had been sourced from French firm Comigel, the same company that supplied tainted Findus beef lasagnes.
These were made for Findus by another French firm, Comigel, at its Luxemburg plant.
According to French consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon, inquiries had found that the horse meat had originated from Romania. Hamon reported that the Luxemburg factory had been supplied by another French firm, which had bought the meat from a Cypriot trader, who in turn sub-contracted the order to a Dutcher trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir.
The Observer newspaper has also reported on the alleged involvement of organised criminal gangs operating internationally.
It said sources close to Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency said it appeared that the contamination of beef burgers, lasagne and other products was the result of fraud of an “international dimension”.
The Observer said experts within the horse slaughter industry said there was evidence that both Polish and Italian mafia gangs were running multimillion-pound scams to substitute horse meat for beef during food production.
It suggested that vets and other officials working within abattoirs and food production plants were intimidated into signing off meat as beef when it was in fact cheaper alternatives such as pork or horse.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s spokesman for health and consumers, Frederic Vincent, said the fact the horse meat discovered in frozen Findus prepared meals could be traced back to Romania showed the EU’s food traceability systems worked.
Vincent, at a press conference in Brussels, said: “The simple fact that within a few hours or 48 hours we can already have a first idea of what happened, that shows that the European traceability works.
“If there has been fraud along the production chain, the operators have to resolve this, from a legal point, amongst each other,” Vincent said. “Someone, somewhere in Europe has sent a supplier meat that wasn’t correctly labelled.”
A German professor has told Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, that some consumers were furious because they felt they had been duped but, for others, something more powerful seemed to be at work.
“There is a high degree of emotionalism because of the history of the horse,” said Victor Meyer-Rochow, a professor of biology at Jacobs University in Bremen. “[It is] seen as such a stately, such a glorious, noble animal, especially if it is declared as some other kind of meat.”
Meyer-Rochow suggested much of the outrage came from people feeling they have been tricked into breaking a deeply felt cultural taboo or food taboo.
“Certainly, horse meat is eaten in many parts of Europe and in many parts of the world and there is no scientific reason why one should not consume horse meat,” said Meyer-Rochow.
Today, however, the norm in most European countries was to give horses the status of family pets.
He noted that horse meat was not eaten by British consumers.
“Any kind of food taboo unites people of a particular group and that makes them different from the others. So, by saying the horse is such a noble animal and we will not eat this meat, we elevate ourselves above those who treat the horse as if it were just a rabbit or something else.”