By Svebor Kranjc
OSS, Netherlands (Reuters) - The Netherlands said on Thursday it was probably too late to recover most of 50,000 tonnes of beef recalled over concerns it may contain horsemeat because much of it probably has been eaten in the past two years.
The meat, sold as beef but suspected of containing horsemeat, was shipped to 380 companies in the Netherlands and at least three other European Union member states between January 2011-January 2013, the Dutch food safety authority said.
Some of the meat may be in frozen meals with long expiration dates still in supermarket freezers, it said.
"We do not know (exactly) how much has been eaten or sold. We expect that a reasonable amount has been eaten because we are talking about (a) period of over two years," Benno Bruggink, spokesman for the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, told Reuters.
The food authority fears the beef may have been mixed with horsemeat because Dutch meat exports labelled "pure beef" tested in March contained horse.
The majority of the foreign buyers of the 50,000 tonnes were 124 food makers and retailers in Germany. Spain followed at 71, with 55 in France. The remainder were Dutch, he said.
There have been no indications the meat is harmful if eaten, but the Dutch food authority said because the origin could not be verified it had been declared unfit for consumption.
The Dutch food authority identified two Dutch companies at the centre of the scandal - meat wholesalers Wiljo Import en Export B.V. and Vleesgroothandel Willy Selten B.V. Neither company could be reached by telephone for comment on Thursday.
Dutch authorities have warned the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which had ordered a recall by national authorities.
In January, tests in Ireland revealed some beef products contained horsemeat, triggering recalls of ready-made meals in several countries and damaging confidence in Europe's vast and complex food industry.
(Additional Reporting By Ivana Secularac; Editing by Michael Roddy)