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EU ministers tackle horsemeat scandal at crisis talks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

EU farm ministers will look at tightening rules on frozen foods at crisis talks called Wednesday in Brussels as a scandal over mislabelled frozen meat products widens across Europe.

As Germany reported a first possible case -- lasagne bought from a Luxembourg distributor suspected of selling horsemeat marked as beef -- the European Union's health commissioner said the talks from 1700 GMT would enable ministers in affected nations to exchange information and discuss how to tighten labelling rules.

One possibility under examination would be to extend a country-of-origin tag currently required for fresh meat to the frozen food sector, said Heath Commissioner Tonio Borg.

"Some countries are in favour, others think it is too complicated. We are considering it, we are waiting on an impact assessment," Borg said at a news conference ahead of the early evening talks. "I'm not shutting any doors."

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

Borg said however that the scandal riling European consumers and the food industry was not due to a lack of rules on labelling but was apparently due to fraud. "The current case is about deceptive labelling," he said.

"If there is horsemeat in hamburgers or lasagne there should've been a label indicating this," he said. "It is evident that somewhere down the line, someone ... has fraudulently or negligently, probably fraudulently, labelled a product in a deceptive way."

It was up to member states and not the EU as such to enforce current labelling legislation, he said, reiterating that the European Commission considered that the affair "up until now is a labelling issue" and "not a health issue".

Wednesday's hastily-convened talks aim to allow the "most affected member states" -- Britain, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Sweden -- to exchange information and look at "whatever steps may be necessary", said Ireland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Further action will be examined Friday at an extraordinary meeting of an EU "Food Chain" committee, and at February 25 talks of the bloc's 27 farm ministers.

Since Britain last week discovered horsemeat in frozen lasagne sold under the Findus label, but processed by French firm Comigel, the scandal has engulfed Europe.

German supermarket chain Kaiser's Tengelmann took its own frozen lasagne off shelves Wednesday, 24 hours after supermarkets in Switzerland and the Netherlands became the latest to pull ready-made meals as anger grows across Europe.

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

Comigel, based in northeastern France, has denied all wrongdoing, saying it bought meat from from another French firm, Spanghero, through its own Luxembourg subsidiary. Spanghero said it was supplied by two abattoirs in Romania.

Traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands were also reportedly involved in the supply chain.

Romania denied being to blame with Prime Minister Victor Ponta this week urging EU officials to find out from where the fraud originated and identify the culprits.

As pressure piles on the EU to act, Interbev, an association representing the French cattle and meat industry, said both consumers and professionals wanted swift action on better labelling.

Raids by British police and officials from the Food Standards Agency on Tuesday on a slaughterhouse in northern England and a meat-producing factory in Wales however opened a new front in the pan-European search for the source of the horsemeat.

Both sites were shut and all meat seized.

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

Also on Tuesday, French 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.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130213/eu-ministers-tackle-horsemeat-scandal-at-crisis-talks