French firm at heart of Europe horse scandal swears innocence

The firm at the heart of Europe's spiralling food crisis vowed Friday to prove its innocence after France accused it of fraudulently selling a mountain of horsemeat that ended up in millions of ready-to-eat "beef" meals.

Spanghero, a meat-processing firm in the French town of Castelnaudary, again insisted it was not responsible for the mis-labelling that has seen supermarkets across the continent pull suspect food from their shelves.

"I don't know who is behind this, but it is not us," Spanghero boss Barthelemy Aguerre told Europe 1 radio, adding that the accusations were putting his 300 workers' jobs on the line. "I will prove our innocence."

The scandal has left governments scrambling to figure out how and where the mis-labelling of the meat happened in the sprawling chain of production spanning abattoirs and meat suppliers across Europe.

The French government threw some light on that question on Thursday when it presented the results of its initial investigation that pinned much of the blame on Spanghero.

It said the firm 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 subisidiary 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, said the findings by the DGCCRF anti-fraud office.

Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said Spanghero would be prosecuted and officials said its licence to handle meat was suspended pending further investigations.

Spanghero boss Aguerre said Friday that his firm had analyzed the meat on its premises as soon as the scandal broke and found that some of it was a mix of beef and horsemeat.

"That proves that Spanghero is not behind this fraud. The fraud comes from elsewhere," he said.

Hamon has said that Romanian abattoirs named in the affair -- and whose horsemeat ended up in Spanghero's hands -- appeared to have acted in good faith.

The French government was Friday sending a team of veterinarians to inspect Spanghero's premises and said it would decide on whether or not to definitively withdraw its licence once the results of the inspections came in next week.

The Dutch government's food and consumer watchdog has also searched and carried out tests for horsemeat at around 100 businesses and has stopped one company in the city of Breda from trading in meat products.

Food safety experts from across the European Union were meanwhile meeting in Brussels on Friday to draw up measures for large-scale testing of beef products to check if they contain horse DNA.

On Thursday, police in Britain arrested three men suspected of passing horse off as beef, and Germany joined the ranks of countries where frozen "beef" lasagne on sale in stores was found to contain horsemeat.

In a sign of the damage the scandal has done to consumer confidence, 11 major food retailers and suppliers issued a public letter in Britain on Friday saying they shared people's "anger and outrage" and were "working around the clock" to identify what has gone wrong.

Evidence of horsemeat has until now been confined to frozen products, but Asda supermarket in Britain said Thursday it had pulled a fresh beef bolognese sauce from the shelves after tests revealed it contained horse DNA.

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.