World's biggest food firms embroiled in Europe horsemeat scandal

PARIS - The world's biggest food company, Swiss-based Nestle, and the world's top beef producer, JBS of Brazil, were Tuesday the latest in a long list of firms to be embroiled in Europe's spiralling horsemeat scandal.

Their involvement in the fast-moving drama marked another milestone in a scandal that has seen supermarket chains across Europe pull from their shelves millions of "beef" products that are thought to contain horsemeat.

Nestle announced it was removing two ready-to-eat meals - beef ravioli and beef tortellini - from supermarket shelves in Italy and Spain after tests found traces of horse DNA in the products.

That brings to around a dozen the number of countries where tests have confirmed that horsemeat has been fraudulently passed off as beef.

Nestle said in a statement late Monday that the horse DNA was found in two products made with beef supplied by German firm HJ Schypke.

It said there was no food safety issue but the tainted products breached the one per cent threshold the British Food Safety Agency uses to indicate likely adulteration or gross negligence.

JBS of Brazil, which used HJ Schypke as a subcontractor, meanwhile said its Belgian branch would stop buying European meat "until confidence is restored in the European beef supply chain."

It sought to distance itself from the scandal, saying in a statement on its website: "Schypke, a traditional German manufacturer of processed meat products, is not in any way part of the JBS Group."

It added: "No case of co-mingling of species has been identified in products produced in or at JBS factories."

On Monday, German discount chain Lidl pulled ready-made meals from the shelves of its Finnish, Danish, Swedish and Belgian stores as it also confirmed the presence of horsemeat.

The French firm that sparked the Europe-wide food alert, by allegedly passing off 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef, was allowed to resume production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals.

But Spanghero, whose horsemeat found its way into 4.5 million "beef" products sold across Europe, will no longer be allowed to stock frozen meat, France's Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said Monday.

Upholding that ban means it cannot act as middleman between abattoirs and food-processing companies, the situation which allegedly allowed it to change labels on horsemeat and sell it on as beef.

The firm's sanitary licence was suspended last Thursday after it was accused of passing off huge quantities of mislabelled meat over a period of six months.

Concerns about horsemeat first emerged in mid-January when Irish authorities found traces of horse in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland and Britain and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco and Aldi.

The scandal then intensified when French firm Comigel alerted Findus earlier this month to the presence of horsemeat in the meals it had made for the food giant and which were on sale in Britain.

Since then, supermarket chains have removed millions of "beef" products as tests are carried out to detect horsemeat, which is eaten in many European countries but is considered taboo in Britain and others.

Horsemeat in "beef" dishes has now been confirmed in products found in Britain, Ireland, France, Austria, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium.

The horsemeat used by Spanghero has been traced back to Romania.

The scandal is likely to spread, as France's DGCCRF anti-fraud office concluded after an initial inquiry that 500 tonnes of Spanghero horsemeat were sent to Comigel, whose frozen meals were sold to 28 different companies in 13 European states.

The European Union, seeking to reassure nervous consumers that their food is safe and to end the horsemeat scandal, on Friday agreed to immediately launch tests for horse DNA in meat products.

All parties have stressed that this is a food labelling issue, not a health issue.