Ireland said Monday it would order Irish meat processors to carry out DNA tests to reassure consumers worried by the discovery of horsemeat in some beef products and called a meeting of European ministers to discuss a wider response.
The horsemeat scandal affecting a growing number of European countries began in Ireland after its food safety authority discovered horsemeat in frozen beef burgers.
The discovery led such major food companies as Tesco and Burger King to drop their Irish producers and Irish investigators to point the finger at Poland as the country of origin for raw materials that contained as much as 75 per cent horse DNA. Poland has disputed the findings.
The decision to ask Irish manufacturers of processed meat products to carry out DNA testing was "a necessary step in order to provide further reassurance to Irish consumers and consumers of Irish food abroad," Ireland’s agriculture department said.
Ireland, which holds the EU presidency, also called a meeting of ministers from European countries affected by the horsemeat scandal.
Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney wants Wednesday’s meeting in Brussels to discuss "whatever steps may be necessary at EU level to comprehensively address this matter", it said.
European Union health commissioner Tonio Borg and ministers from EU countries affected by the horsemeat scandal will attend. The issue will also be on the agenda of the next formal meeting of EU agriculture ministers on Feb. 25, Ireland said.
Concern grew last week when the British unit of frozen foods group Findus began recalling its beef lasagne on advice from its French supplier, Comigel, after tests showed concentrations of horsemeat in a range from 60 to 100 percent.
Comigel said the questionable meat came from Romania.
Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer, said on Monday it had found horse DNA exceeding 60 percent in some of its own-brand frozen spaghetti bolognese meals withdrawn from stores last week.
In Britain, where eating horsemeat is taboo, farm minister Owen Paterson has said he suspects an "international criminal conspiracy" lies behind the affair. The French and British governments have vowed to punish those found responsible.
Adding to concerns are indications that some horsemeat, perfectly edible in itself, may contain a drug known as phenylbutazone, also known as "bute," a common, anti-inflammatory painkiller for sporting horses but banned for animals intended for human consumption.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has said it regards the horsemeat scandal as a labelling issue rather than a health concern.
Romania’s prime minister said on Monday any fraud over horsemeat sold as beef had not happened in his country and he was angered by suggestions it might have been.
"From all the data we have at the moment, there is no breach of European rules committed by companies from Romania or on Romanian territory," Victor Ponta told a news conference. "I am very angry, to be honest."
An initial French investigation revealed that the horsemeat ended up in Comigel’s Luxembourg factory, supplied by a French firm, and that a Dutch and Cypriot trader had also been involved. However, the meat originally came from a Romanian abattoir.
At the planned EU meeting, France wants to raise the question of origin labelling for meat in processed products, French farm minister Stephane Le Foll said on Monday.
French government inspectors are currently going through the sales records of Comigel to see if any products liable to contain mislabelled horsemeat are still on the market despite the withdrawal of products by six retail chains.
— Adrian Croft is a U.K. reporter for Reuters; Padraic Halpin is a Reuters correspondent in Dublin.