PARIS — The price, smell and color should have been clear tipoffs something was wrong with shipments of horse meat that were fraudulently labeled as beef, French authorities said Thursday. The government pinned the bulk of the blame on a French wholesaler at the heart of a growing scandal in Europe.
Police in Great Britain, meanwhile, announced the arrests Thursday of three men on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants inspected this week by the country’s Food Standards Agency.
British officials also said tests showed that a powerful equine drug, potentially harmful to human health, may have entered the food chain in small quantities.
Until now, the crisis had been seen primarily as an issue of fraud after products containing horse meat were labeled as beef, with politicians insisting that, even if millions of products sold as beef contained up to 100 percent horse meat, food safety was not at issue.
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But Thursday came the first admission that a banned substance, phenylbutazone — known as bute — could have entered the food chain in horse meat.
The developments were part of an escalating scare that has raised questions about food controls in the European Union — and highlighted how little consumers know about the complex trading operations that get food from producers to wholesalers to processors to stores and onto their dinner table.
Europol, the European Union police agency, is coordinating a fraud investigation amid accusations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.
In Paris, Benoît Hamon, the government’s consumer-affairs minister, said it appeared that in the most prominent case, fraudulent meat sales had been going on for several months, and reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. He did not name the countries or companies. He said most of the blame rested with Spanghero, a wholesaler based in southern France.
Officials at Spanghero denied knowingly buying and reselling horse meat but French authorities immediately suspended the firm’s trading activities.
Hamon said Spanghero was one company in a chain that started with two Romanian slaughterhouses that say they clearly labeled their meat as horse.
The meat was then bought by a Cyprus-registered trader and sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands. Spanghero bought the meat from the trader, then resold it to the French frozen-food processor Comigel. The resulting food was marketed under the Sweden-based Findus brand as lasagna and other products and labeled as containing ground beef.
Hamon said Spanghero was aware the meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel. “Spanghero knew,” Hamon said. “One thing that should have attracted Spanghero’s attention? The price.”
Hamon said the meat from Romania cost far below the market rate for beef.
Food processor Comigel was not blameless, Hamon said, adding that the paperwork from Spanghero had significant irregularities. “And once the meat was defrosted, we can ask ourselves why Comigel didn’t notice that the color and odor was not that of beef?” Hamon said.
Britain’s food regulator, meanwhile, said six horse carcasses that tested positive for bute may have entered the human food chain in France and that horse meat tainted with the medicine may have been sold to consumers “for some time.”
The Food Standards Agency said eight of 206 horses it checked had tested positive for bute. The drug is banned for human use in countries, including Britain and the U.S.
Almost no horse meat is consumed in Britain, where eating horse is widely considered taboo. But thousands of horses killed in the country each year are exported for meat to countries, including France and Belgium that have a culture of eating horse meat.
Despite the ban on bute for humans, Britain’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, said that horse meat containing the drug “presents a very low risk to human health.”
She said the drug was once prescribed to patients with severe arthritis, and while it sometimes produced serious side effects including the blood disorder aplastic anemia, it was “extremely unlikely” that anyone eating horse meat would experience them.
In Wales, police said two men — ages 64 and 42 — were arrested at Farmbox Meats near Aberystwyth, while a 63-year-old man was arrested at the Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. They were questioned about horse carcasses that had been butchered at the plants and then ended up labeled as beef burgers and kebabs for British supermarkets.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.