EU agrees to test meat for horse DNA in food labelling row

The European Union on Friday agreed the immediate launch of tests for horse DNA in meat products as part of a plan to battle food fraud following the horsemeat scandal spreading across Europe.

A European Commission plan to carry out DNA tests on beef products and check in abattoirs for the presence of an equine drug potentially harmful to humans was endorsed at an extraordinary meeting of the EU's Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health.

EU officials and statements said the testing of "foods destined for the final consumer and marketed as containing beef" could start immediately in member states, with the European Commission co-funding tests at a rate of 75 percent for the first month.

The DNA controls, "mainly at the retail level", will include 2,250 samples across the EU, ranging from 10 to 150 tests per member state.

The phenylbutazone test will require one sample for every 50 tonnes of horsemeat, with each of the bloc's 27 states required to carry out a minimum of five tests.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, who proposed the plan at crisis talks on Wednesday, said he welcomed the swift approval by EU member states of the plan.

"I call on them to keep up the pressure in their efforts to identify a clear picture and a sequence of events," he said in a statement.

"Consumers expect the EU, national authorities and all those involved in the food chain to give them all the reassurance needed as regards what they have on their plates."

The results will be reported to the European Commission by April 15 which will collate them in the EU's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) so that they can be immediately used by member states.

Since the problem was first discovered in Ireland in January, governments have scrambled to figure out how and where the mislabelling of the meat happened in the sprawling chain of production spanning abattoirs and meat suppliers across Europe.

"Under current EU rules, the name of foods which only suggest the presence of beef meat where, in fact, also other species of meat are present, is misleading and breaching the legislation," a Commission statement said.

Tests in both Norway and Austria meanwhile found horsemeat in ready-to-eat "beef" meals after similar problems were reported in Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland.