The unfolding horse-meat scandal in Europe is partly a result of a complex supply chain.
LONDON — It’s been about a month since a factory in Ireland let the pony out of the stable and admitted to finding traces of equine DNA in beef patties it made for export to the United Kingdom.
Since then, dinner tables across Europe have been finding out almost daily that at some point they probably were graced with an uninvited guest.
The latest discovery was made by the Swedish furniture giant IKEA. Inspectors in the Czech Republic said Monday they found traces of horse meat in frozen meatballs made in Sweden for the furniture maker.
IKEA spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson said meatballs from the same batch had gone out to Slovakia, Hungary, France, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Ireland. Magnusson said meatballs from that batch were taken off the shelves in IKEA stores in all those countries.
Other shipments of meatballs were not affected, including to the USA, even though they all come from the same Swedish supplier, Magnusson said.
“Our global recommendation is to not recall or stop selling meatballs,” she said.
Authorities are finding out that tracing the origins of the horse-meat scandal is a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole.
Over the weekend, horse meat was found on pizza in Denmark. Last week, Swiss food giant Nestle and frozen foodmaker Birds Eye were forced to withdraw products from supermarkets in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Agriculture ministers from the European Union are meeting in Brussels on Monday to address the growing crisis. Some, like Germany’s Ilse Aigner, see a solution in more stringent rules for ingredients labeling.
The Irish want more to be done about what they contend is often deliberate fraud. Owen Paterson, the U.K.’s environment minister, has said that he wants to see “concrete, coordinated action right across Europe.”
One of the first news to break on the scandal involved Findus, a European firm that was found to be producing a beef lasagna “ready meal” or frozen dinner that testing revealed in some instances contained 60% to 100% horse meat.
An investigation in the U.K. by the BBC’s Panorama television program revealed that Findus’ meat-processing supply chain is complex to say the least.
Findus’ beef lasagna had what the BBC investigators called an “extraordinary journey before” making its way to the U.K.’s supermarket shelves.
“The beef had in fact started life in Romania. Only at that point it wasn’t a cow,” said the BBC’s Richard Bilton, who lead the fact-finding mission.
It appears that the horse meat was re-labeled a beef when it left Transylvania The Romanian company CarmOlimp, which produced the meat, said it is confident that it exported 100% horse and its products were labeled as such. It denied involvement in any label switching.
European investigators alleged that Findus’ Romanian horse became a cow when it reached the town of Breda, in the Netherlands. The Dutch are still investigating this. The horse/cow then showed up in France at the meat production operation Spanghero, near the border with Spain.
At Spanghero, Findus’ horse/cow checked in as Romanian horse meat but it checked out as European Union beef. Barthélémy Aguerre, Spanghero’s chief executive, said: “I don’t apologize because I don’t feel responsible. I think the responsibility lies elsewhere.”
In Luxembourg? That’s where the meat went next and finally became a burger at a Findus factory before being shipped back to the U.K. and across Europe.
In the age of the multiple-use factory, as well as meat sourcing from a multitude of suppliers, the European experience may not be unique.
“We (the U.S.) get meat from lots of countries,” said Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University, in e-mailed comments. “One U.S. Department of Agriculture study said that a single pound of hamburger meat might come from 400 different cows.
“If there was a lot of horse meat around, it could easily get mixed in and nobody would notice if nobody checked,” she said.
Nestle said that while Congress permits horses to be slaughtered in the USA it won’t allow inspectors to be paid out of tax revenues, effectively banning slaughter. Instead, the horses are sent to Canada and Mexico to be killed, she wrote in a blog post on her website foodpolitics.com, totalling as many as 140,000 since 2006.
Malcolm Walker, chief executive of Iceland, a British supermarket caught up in Europe’s escalating horse meat scandal, told the BBC it did not routinely test the genus of its meat.
“Did we test for horse? No, but we didn’t test for cat or dog either,” he said. “There might be dog and cat.”
Or even fish. Last week an environmental group Oceana said its own investigating revealed that seafood routinely sold in restaurants and supermarkets across America may not be what it is labeled. The most common mislabeling included red snapper and white tuna. One-third of it may routinely be sold under false pretenses.