EU has open mind on origin labelling as members push for horsemeat action

The European Commission said Monday it has an open mind when it comes to place of origin labels on prepared foods as several member states pushed for the measure to help combat the horsemeat for beef scandal.

EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg nonetheless said an EU report into the labelling issue -- which was in the works before the crisis broke -- would be brought forward three months so member states could review it earlier.

As more cases were reported across Europe, Borg said a growing number of member states were "in favour of introducing this legislation but ... I have an open mind."

Passing off horsemeat as beef was simple criminal fraud, he insisted, saying that place of origin labels would not have prevented that happening.

Simon Coveney, who as Ireland's agriculture minister chaired Monday's talks in Brussels, said testing was the way forward as only that could ensure the integrity of the food chain in the future.

Country of origin labelling was positive but the key issue was to use "DNA testing to confirm for consumers that they are eating what they think they are eating," Coveney said.

Earlier this month, EU ministers agreed at an emergency meeting to launch tests for horse DNA in meat products, initially for one month and possibly for three.

In addition, the test programme also looks for the presence of phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory treatment for horses which is harmful to humans.

French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said separately that France, Germany, Britain, Austria and Portugal had all asked for the Commission to bring forward the labelling report.

Rather than the end of the year, it should be made available by the middle of the year, Le Foll said, adding: "I argued that the best would be by June and at the very latest, by September."

Several countries, including Germany, were in favour of putting labels of origin on prepared foods, he said.