Sweden's horsemeat scandal: Food authorities call police over Swedish frozen food maker Findus

LONDON (CNN) -- A scandal over horsemeat found in frozen beef products is spiraling across Europe as several governments launch investigations and a company involved says it has determined who "the villain" is.

The police probes and legal maneuvers responding to the discovery are quickly becoming a tangled web -- much like the complex supply chain of the meat products themselves.

Swedish food producer Findus has been a focus of the uproar since it announced Thursday that it had withdrawn its lasagna from UK stores as a precaution. The products were pulled Monday after French supplier Comigel raised concerns about the type of meat that was used, Findus Sweden said.

But Findus is only one of several companies that receives products from Comigel. Others inculde Axfood, Coop, and ICA, all of which announced they have pulled certain meat products from the shelves due to the possibility they contain horsemeat.

Findus Nordic -- which oversees the company throughout the Nordic region -- said Sunday it has begun legal action against Comigel and its subsuppliers.

"We are only at the beginning of our legal process. Comigel will end up in a lot of legal processes going forward, I imagine," Findus Nordic CEO Jari Latvanen said Sunday in an interview with CNN. "Comigel is the villain."

Comigel has not responded to CNN's repeated requests for comment.

Findus' French arm, meanwhile, said it will file a legal complaint Monday against a Romanian business that is part of the supply chain. It did not name the business publicly.

And French government officials say their investigation will include a look at parts of the supply chain in some other countries.

France's consumer affairs minister, Benoit Hamon, has ordered an immediate investigation, and results will be available by midweek. In a statement, Hamon said a provider in Luxembourg and traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands are also part of the chain being probed.

Scandal rocks meat industry

The scandal comes just weeks after a discovery that shocked many and triggered a crisis in Europe's meat industry.

Last month, horsemeat was found in hamburgers sold in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Officials in Ireland have blamed Polish meat ingredients.

In January, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that 10 out of 27 hamburger products it analyzed in a study contained horse DNA, while 23 of them -- or 85% -- tested positive for pig DNA.

In nine out of the 10 burger samples, the horse DNA was found at very low levels, the inspectors said, but in one sample from Tesco, Britain's largest retailer, the horse meat accounted for about 29% of the burger.

Tesco apologized to customers after the revelation and promised action to make sure it never happened again.

Countries launch investigations

In addition to the probe in France, Sweden announced Sunday that it is reporting Findus to police after horsemeat was found in products labeled as beef in Sweden, the United Kingdom and France.

"When we have discovered that products have been sold with the wrong labels, in this case beef lasagna containing horsemeat, it is normal that we report the company to police, according to the Swedish food legislation," Lukas Linne, press secretary with the Swedish National Food Agency, told CNN.

The agency met Sunday to discuss the scandal.

British police are investigating as well.

British officials held an emergency meeting Saturday in London. Participants agreed "meaningful results" must be achieved by Friday, UK Food Standards Agency spokesman Brad Smythe said.

Officials discussed what tests are possible, what laboratory capacity is needed, and what can be done to protect consumer confidence, he said.

The evidence so far suggests "either criminal activity or gross negligence," Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said, adding that "more bad news" could come.

UK food businesses have been ordered to test all processed beef products for authenticity and report back to the authorities by Friday.

"I am determined that we get to the bottom of this and that any wrongdoing discovered is punished," Paterson said in a statement.

Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in Friday on Twitter. "This is completely unacceptable -- this isn't about food safety but about proper food labeling and confidence in retailers," he wrote.

The British arm of Findus also said it is considering legal action against suppliers. Early results of an internal investigation "strongly suggest" the horsemeat contamination of a beef lasagna product "was not accidental," the company said.

'A crime, a scandal'

Latvanen, fighting to protect his company's reputation, said it is " a serious case of fraud which we at Findus uncovered."

"What has happened with Comigel is a crime, a scandal," he said in the interview with CNN.

Findus France issued a statement with a similar message: "We were deceived. There are two victims in this affair: Findus and the consumer."

The

revelations have revolted many meat eaters in the United Kingdom, where horsemeat is generally considered taboo, although it is commonly eaten in neighboring France, as well as countries including China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Italy.

Responding to questions as to how long it had known about the horsemeat issue, Findus said it had only been alerted by Comigel in a letter dated February 2.

That letter made Findus "aware of a possible August 2012 date" for the contamination, the company said.

Concerns about a veterinary drug

While horsemeat is not itself a food safety hazard, its unauthorized presence -- in quantities up to 100% -- in foods purported to be made with beef has raised serious concerns.

Comigel has not yet responded to CNN requests for comment.

Chief among food inspectors' concerns is that the illicit horsemeat could contain the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, or "bute," commonly used to treat horses.

Meat from animals treated with phenylbutazone is not allowed to enter the food chain as it may pose a risk to human health.

Findus has been ordered to test the lasagna withdrawn from shelves in the United Kingdom for the drug's presence.

Tests showed up to 100% horsemeat

British retailer Aldi said in a statement that tests on random samples of its affected products, labeled Today's Special Frozen Beef Lasagne and Today's Special Frozen Spaghetti Bolognese, "demonstrated that the withdrawn products contained between 30% and 100% horsemeat.

"This is completely unacceptable and like other affected companies, we feel angry and let down by our supplier. If the label says beef, our customers expect it to be beef."

Samples of the affected Findus lasagna contained between 60% and 100% horsemeat, according to UK and Irish food safety inspectors.

The discovery of pig DNA in beef products is of particular concern to Jews and Muslims, whose dietary laws forbid the consumption of pork products. Jewish dietary laws also ban the eating of horsemeat.

The UK Justice Ministry confirmed last week that a number of meat pies and similar items supplied to prisons in England and Wales were labeled and served as halal -- prepared in compliance with Islamic dietary law -- but contained traces of pork DNA, the Food Standards Agency said.

Horsemeat is not commonly eaten in the United States, but the country does export it to Canada and Mexico. Congress passed a bill in November 2011 that lifted a 5-year-old ban on the slaughter of horses for meat in the United States.

CNN's Per Nyberg and Laura Smith-Spark reported from London; CNN's Josh Levs reported from Atlanta.

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