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France on Thursday pinned much of the blame for Europe's horse scandal on a French firm that allegedly sold 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef that ended up in millions of ready-to-eat meals sold across the continent.
The move came as police in Britain arrested three men suspected of passing horse off as beef, and as Germany joined the ranks of countries where frozen "beef" lasagne was found to contain horsemeat.
The scandal has left governments scrambling to figure out how the mislabelling of the meat started in the sprawling chain of production spanning abattoirs and meat suppliers in countries across Europe.
The French government on Thursday threw some light on that question when it presented the results of an investigation that pinned much of the blame on Spanghero, a meat-processing firm in the southwestern town of Castelnaudary.
The findings by the DGCCRF anti-fraud office, presented by Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon, are staggering.
It said Spanghero had knowingly sold 750 tonnes of horsemeat mis-labelled as beef over a period of six months, 500 tonnes of which were sent to French firm Comigel, which makes frozen meals at its Tavola factory in Luxembourg.
That meat was used to make 4.5 million products that were sold by Comigel to 28 different companies in 13 European countries, it said.
Hamon said Spanghero would be prosecuted and officials said its licence to handle meat would be suspended pending further investigations.
The minister told reporters that Comigel, which supplied millions of ready-to-eat meals to supermarkets across Europe which have now removed them from their shelves, had been deceived by Spanghero.
But he said that Comigel had failed to carry out tests or properly inspect paperwork that would have alerted it to the scam. He added that Romanian abattoirs named in the affair appeared to have acted in good faith.
Spanghero on Thursday again denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement that it had never ordered, received or resold any meat that it did not believe to be beef.
Media reports in several European countries have focused on a Dutch trader identified as Jan Fasen, director of Draap Trading Ltd, as a possible key player in the scandal.
Fasen 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.
In Britain, where unlike continental European countries eating horse is taboo, police said three men suspected of passing horsemeat off as beef were arrested Thursday on suspicion of fraud.
Two were arrested in Aberystwyth in Wales where a food processing plant is based, and one was detained in northern England, where police raided a slaughterhouse on Tuesday.
Both the processing plant and the slaughterhouse were shut down by Britain's Food Standards Agency on Wednesday. They are the first two plants in Britain accused of selling horsemeat labelled as beef.
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 spiralled last week when Comigel alerted Findus to the presence of horsemeat in the meals it had made for the food giant and which were on sale in Britain.
Since then retailers in Britain, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands have removed Comigel products such as meatballs, hamburgers, minced meat and lasagne.
Officials are carrying out tests to see if the beef is real or not.
Two supermarket chains in Germany, Real and Edeka, said Thursday that they had found traces of horsemeat in frozen lasagne that they had pulled as a precautionary measure off their shelves last week.
Germany thus joined France and Britain as countries were the presence of horsemeat in "beef" products has been confirmed.
After emergency talks in Brussels on Wednesday, the EU's health commissioner Tonio Borg said the block was calling on all of its 27 member states to carry out DNA tests on beef products.
France's Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll meanwhile said authorities had located and would destroy three horse carcasses that tested positive for an equine drug that is potentially harmful to humans.
He said that the carcasses, which had arrived in France from Britain, were "another affair" that had nothing to do with the wider horsemeat scandal.