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Countries swap blame on horse meat

Scandal exposes supply intricacy

The unmarked horse meat found in food has been traced to Romania, where horses are a key part of the rural economy.

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

The unmarked horse meat found in food has been traced to Romania, where horses are a key part of the rural economy.

BUCHAREST — A maze of trading among meat wholesalers has made it increasingly difficult to trace the origins of food — enabling horse meat disguised as beef to be sold in frozen meals across Europe.

Countries and companies are increasingly blaming each other. On Monday, Romanian officials scrambled to defend two plants implicated in the scandal, saying the meat was properly declared and any fraud was committed elsewhere.

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France says Romanian butchers and Dutch and Cypriot traders were part of a supply chain that resulted in horse meat being labeled as beef before it was included in frozen dinners including lasagna, moussaka, and the French equivalent of shepherd’s pie. The affair started earlier this year with worries about horse meat in burgers in Ireland and Britain.

British grocery chain Tesco said Monday tests showed some samples of its frozen spaghetti meal contained more than 60 percent horse DNA.

Horse meat is largely taboo in Britain and some other countries, though in France it is sold in specialty butcher shops and is prized by some connoisseurs. Authorities aren’t worried about health effects, but the scandal has unsettled consumers across Europe and raised questions about producers misleading the public.

France’s agricultural minister said Monday that regulators must find a way ‘‘out of the fog.’’

One of the Romanian slaughterhouses implicated, Carmolimp, said in a statement its meat was properly labeled as horse meat, adding that it had not exported beef in 2012.

The slaughterhouse called attempts to blame it for the scandal ‘‘shameful,’’ suggesting that only an incompetent French meat processor would mistake the horse meat for beef.

Romania has about 25 horse meat slaughterhouses and exports horse meat to Cyprus, France, Poland, and the Netherlands, often through middlemen, officials said.

Romanian authorities stopped short of confirming that the two slaughterhouses were the source of the horse meat. But they said they checked paperwork that shows they were not improperly mislabeling meat before it was shipped out of the country to middlemen.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Monday there were no direct contracts between the Romanian plants and French companies and the meat would have been mislabeled somewhere else along the line.

‘‘We can now ask that the guilty parties are sanctioned as fast and firmly as possible,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to help catch and punish the guilty ones. . . . We are victims of this fraud.’’

An initial investigation by French safety authorities determined that French company Poujol bought frozen meat from a Cypriot trader. That trader had received it from a Dutch food trader, and that Dutch company had received the meat from two Romanian slaughterhouses.

In Bucharest, Agriculture Minister Daniel Constantin said agriculture ministers from Britain, France, and Romania will meet in Brussels at the end of the week to discuss the scandal.

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