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Drug find stokes health fears in Europe horsemeat crisis

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Europe's scandal over horsemeat-tainted food spiralled Thursday after Britain announced the discovery of a potentially harmful drug in horsemeat sent to France, and Germany became the latest country to be drawn in.

British Agriculture Minister David Heath said horse carcasses that tested positive for an equine drug that is potentially harmful to humans were sent from Britain to France and may have entered the food chain there.

But he said phenylbutazone, which can cause a serious blood disorder in humans in rare cases, had not been found in tests on products made by food giant Findus, which has been embroiled in the scandal.

German supermarket chain Real said it had found traces of horsemeat in frozen lasagne that it had pulled as a precautionary measure off the shelves last week. Other German supermarkets are also testing products.

After emergency talks in Brussels on Wednesday, the EU's executive called in Europe's law enforcers and urged bloc-wide DNA food testing to restore consumer confidence over mislabelled meat products.

"We do not know exactly what has gone wrong," British food and environment minister Owen Paterson told reporters after the talks attended by representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Romania, Poland and Sweden.

As he prepared to drive to the headquarters of the Europol law enforcement agency in The Hague, he warned: "We have to get to the bottom of these cases."

Britain, France and Switzerland have all found horsemeat -- cheaper than beef -- in frozen meals labelled as beef, while supermarket chains in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have pulled millions of frozen ready meals off the shelves.

Germany's Real supermarket said tests on Wednesday had "found traces of horsemeat" adding there had been "at no time evidence of a hygiene risk for consumers".

It had already withdrawn the frozen TiP lasagne product from sale as a precaution last Friday, it said in a statement released hours after German officials said they suspected food may have been delivered to the country mislabelled as beef when it contained horsemeat.

German Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner said on public ARD television on Thursday: "Authorities must check to what extent horsemeat is actually present in these products."

Supermarket chain Edeka and frozen goods group Eismann are also testing products.

-- 'Someone will be held responsible' --

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On Wednesday the EU's health commissioner Tonio Borg said Brussels was calling on all 27 European Union states to carry out DNA tests on beef products to see if they contained horsemeat.

The European Commission would also urge checks in all European establishments handling raw horsemeat for phenylbutazone, an equine veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.

"No one has the right to label as beef something that is not beef," he said. "Someone will be held responsible, even criminally responsible."

Since Britain last week discovered horsemeat in frozen lasagne -- made by French firm Comigel and sold under the Findus label -- supermarkets across Europe have pulled millions of frozen ready meals from the shelves.

Comigel, based in northeastern France, has denied all wrongdoing, saying it bought meat from another French firm, Spanghero, through its own Luxembourg subsidiary. Spanghero said it was supplied by two abattoirs in Romania -- who also insist they have done nothing wrong.

Media reports in several European countries focused on a Dutch trader identified as Jan Fasen.

Fasen, director of Draap Trading Ltd, told Britain's Guardian newspaper he had bought a consignment of horsemeat from two Romanian abattoirs and sold it to French food processors -- but he denied mislabelling it.

"We sold it to Spanghero in France as well as to clients in Belgium and Holland. It was all sold as horse. There is no issue," Fasen said.

"Somebody made a mistake and it was definitely not us," he insisted.

Romania has repeatedly denied being to blame, its Agriculture Minister Daniel Constantin insisting Wednesday that "all the horsemeat provided by the Romanian companies that was placed on the EU market was correctly labelled."

Should the EU proposals to tighten controls on processed foods be accepted, in the first month, in March, there would be 4,000 tests for the drug phenylbutazone and another 2,500 for horsemeat. Initial results would be expected by April 15.

The proposals will be examined Friday at an extraordinary meeting of the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130214/drug-find-stokes-health-fears-europe-horsemeat-crisis