Lawyers want Dutch court to nix massive meat recall

Lawyers representing a Dutch businessman suspected of involvement in Europe's meat scandal asked judges on Tuesday to quash an order forcing his company to recall thousands of tonnes of beef allegedly contaminated with horsemeat.

Businessman Willy Selten's lawyer called last week's order by the Dutch food and consumer watchdog to recall thousands of tonnes of meat, sold by the company over the last two years, as "bizarre and bordering on the mass hysteria gripping the whole of Europe".

"We are asking you to nullify this recall," the lawyer Frank Peters told judge Reinier van Zutphen at an urgent application before a commercial court in The Hague.

The NVWA watchdog has recalled 50,000 tonnes of beef suspected to have been contaminated with horse, asking hundreds of companies across Europe supplied by Selten to check their products.

But Peters argued in court that there had never been a complaint in the 22 years in which Selten's company distributed meat from the small Dutch town of Oss, stressing: "All his meat comes from within the European Union."

The recall, Peters later told journalists outside court, was "disproportionate".

"The commotion might have been over one horse," carcass, which his client has conceded may have been included in meat stored at his company over the past two years, he said.

"Most of the meat distributed by Selten had already been eaten anyway," Peters added.

Earlier on Tuesday, a southern Dutch court declared Selten's company bankrupt and placed it under curatorship, a spokeswoman for the East Brabant regional court told AFP.

Jan Bult, representing the Dutch state, said NVWA investigations found "discrepancies in Selten's administration" as to where the company's meat had been sent and where it originated.

"Far more meat was going out than coming in," at Selten's business, Bult told the judge.

"You have to verify what comes in and register what goes out -- and that is what we don't know."

A verdict is expected on Thursday.

The NVWA said it had sent a letter to 130 Dutch companies who were supplied with possible horse-contaminated beef from the Selten company, asking them to "take it off the market as a precautionary measure" and "verify all products".

The NVWA authority said although the meat's origin could not be guaranteed, "there are no signs of a danger to the public health".

Dutch officials in February raided the Selten meat processing plant in the south of the Netherlands on suspicion that it was mixing horsemeat with beef and selling it as pure beef.

The website of Selten's wholesale meat company said it was "an internationally operating company, specialising in boning and cutting beef" that employed about 100 people.

It handled imports from various European countries and delivered to retailers, meat wholesalers, butchers, the meat processing industry and supermarkets throughout Europe.

The plant was probed as part of a criminal investigation by the prosecutor's office and the NVWA.

It is suspected of fraud and money laundering, the prosecutor's office said at the time.

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