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EU ministers to meet on horsemeat crisis

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

European Union farm ministers hold crisis talks in Brussels on Wednesday to agree a response to a scandal over mislabelled frozen meat products which is spreading across Europe.

The snap talks come a day after British police searching for the source of horsemeat found in kebabs and burgers raided two meat plants, the first such operation in the row, and France became the second EU nation after Britain to find horsemeat posing as beef in frozen food.

"If there is horsemeat in hamburgers or lasagne there should've been a label indicating this," EU commissioner for health Tonio Borg said ahead of the talks.

"Consumers are entitled to know what they are eating," he said at a news conference. "If anyone distributes and circulates meat products as beef, when it is not beef, that is in violation" of EU legislation.

It was up to member states to enforce current labelling legislation, he said, reiterating also that the European Commission believed that the scandal "up until now is a labelling issues" and "not a health issue".

"It is evident," he added, "that someone down the line has fraudulently or negligently -- probably fraudulently -- labelled a product in a deceptive way."

Wednesday's talks between EU agriculture ministers opening at 1630 GMT aim to have "an exchange of views and allow for sharing of information between the most affected member states" -- Britain, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Sweden.

The ministers will also look at "whatever steps may be necessary at EU level to comprehensively address this matter", said Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

On Tuesday, supermarkets in Switzerland and the Netherlands became the latest to pull ready-made meals as anger grows across Europe.

France has called for precise labelling on the origin of meat in ready-made dishes.

And President Francois Hollande warned on Wednesday that the scandal could seriously damage the country's frozen food sector.

"The president underlines that it is a serious affair in relation to consumer confidence and potentially serious for the consequences for the French sector," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.

Interbev, an association representing the French cattle and meat industry, has denounced the EU's failure to act, saying bth consumers and professionals wanted swift action on better labelling.

In Britain, police and officials from the Food Standards Agency on Tuesday raided a slaughterhouse in northern England and a meat-producing factory in Wales. They shut both sites and seized all meat there.

"The agency and the police are looking into the circumstances through which meat products, purporting to be beef for kebabs and burgers, were sold when they were in fact horse," the agency said.

Andrew Rhodes, operations director of the FSA, said he had ordered an audit of abattoirs that produce horsemeat in Britain when the scandal arose last month "and I was shocked to uncover what appears to be a blatant misleading of consumers."

The raids on the British meat premises opened a new front in the pan-European search for the source of the horsemeat: the allegations had so far focused on Romania.

In France, retailer Picard said tests had confirmed that horsemeat was present in two lots of frozen "beef" lasagne meals made by French firm Comigel.

Retailers in Britain, Sweden, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands have been removing Comigel products after the firm alerted Swedish frozen food giant Findus to the presence of horsemeat in its meals last week.

Swiss supermarket giant Coop said it had now withdrawn all frozen lasagnes produced by Comigel as a precaution.

Comigel denies any wrongdoing. It said it obtained its meat from another French firm, Spanghero, which said it was supplied from two abattoirs in Romania who allegedly passed off horsemeat as beef.

But Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta this week angrily denied his country was to blame and called on European Union officials to find out from where the fraud originated and identify the guilty parties.

Dutch supermarkets PLUS and Boni said Tuesday they had withdrawn Primafrost brand frozen lasagne as a precaution because it may contain horsemeat without being marked on the packaging.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130213/eu-ministers-meet-horsemeat-crisis