AMSTERDAM — A Cyprus-registered company called "Draap Trading Ltd." moved to the center of Europe's horsemeat mislabeling scandal Wednesday, as it emerged that a man with the same name as the owner of Draap was convicted of fraud for passing off horsemeat as beef by a Dutch court last year.
The scandal has revealed the maze of middlemen and wholesalers that produce the frozen dinners that end up on Europe's supermarket shelves. Horsemeat from a Romanian abattoir ended up in lasagna, moussaka and other products via companies and contractors in Luxembourg, France, Cyprus and the Netherlands.
Romanian officials have said the meat was properly labeled when it left the country, while French producer Spaghero said it purchased meat products labeled "boneless frozen beef" from Draap. Draap is "horse" spelled backward in Dutch.
Officials had not named the Dutch company involved directly before Wednesday, but at a press conference in Brussels, French Minister of Consumers Benoit Hamon said "there is a Dutch company for which we would like to have more information on."
Asked directly whether that company was Draap, he answered, "yes."
Separately, a Cyprus government official speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to hinder an ongoing police probe confirmed that a Cyprus-registered company by the name of Draap is under police investigation in the horsemeat scandal. The official confirmed the company's director is a Dutch national.
The owner of a Dutch freezer warehouse where Draap stores much of its meat confirmed that Draap's owner is named Jan Fasen.
Court documents in the city of Breda, Netherlands, show a Jan Fasen was convicted on Jan. 18, 2012 as the main suspect in a case where hundreds of thousands of kilograms of horsemeat or horsemeat mixed with beef were mislabeled as containing only beef and sold to two unnamed French buyers.
Dutch national broadcaster NOS identified Fasen as the same man, but prosecutors and food safety authorities declined to comment.
Lawyers for Fasen did not respond to requests for comment and Fasen himself could not immediately be located for comment.
Britain's Guardian newspaper said Wednesday it had interviewed Fasen, without disclosing where, and Fasen confirmed selling horse meat but denied mislabeling it.
"We sold it to Spanghero in France as well as to clients in Belgium and Holland," the paper quoted him as saying. "It was all sold as horse. There is no issue."
He added: "Somebody made a mistake and it was definitely not us."
In the 2012 case, Fasen's company Fasen Meat Trading BV and its accomplice Windmeijer Meat Trading BV sourced cheap horsemeat from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, marked it up, and sold it in on, in some cases certified as being Halal: that is, pure beef slaughtered according to Muslim dietary laws.
Fasen's lawyer Rogier Hoerchner had argued his client did nothing wrong. But Fasen was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in the scam, which took place over a period of two years in 2007-2009. It is not clear whether he appealed that decision or served part of the time.
Dutch regional broadcaster Omroep Brabant reported at the time of the conviction that authorities had tried to seize (EURO)3.8 million ($5.1 million) in improper gains from Fasen and other suspects found to play a lesser role, but were only awarded (EURO)41,000 by the court.
Jeffrey Grootenboer, owner of freezer warehouse Nemijtek, readily identified Fasen from a photograph as also being the owner of Draap.
Grootenboer estimated Draap keeps approximately 150 large pallets full of frozen meat at the warehouse. Grootenboer said that 80 or 90 percent of Draap's meat is horsemeat.
But Fasen "is a client, a very small client," for Nemijtek he said, adding that all meat products at the warehouse make up less than 1 percent of total storage, and no meat processing takes place on site.
He said Fasen operates out of the Belgian town of Scholten, but only has a postbox address there.
Grootenboer confirmed that the Dutch Food and Wares authority had visited his warehouse Wednesday.
The relationship between the Dutch and Cyprus sides of Draap's business were still not totally clear.
At the Brussels press conference, French Minister of Agriculture Stephane Le Foll said the Dutch and Cyprus traders were "different things."
"There is different things, Dutch or Cyprus traders – we don't have specific names to give," she said, and called for the investigation to be coordinated by Europol, the European police coordination agency.
Earlier, Cyprus Veterinary Services Director Georgios Kyriakides told state broadcaster CyBC Wednesday that a foreign-owned, Cyprus-registered company is being investigated in connection with the horsemeat scandal.
He said this company is being managed locally by an auditing firm that receives orders for meat, which is then sent on to the Netherlands. He said none of this meat passed through Cyprus. Kyriakides said authorities are trying to gather paperwork on the company's meat orders going back six months, which will then be turned over to EU authorities.
Public Health Services Deputy Director Christos Christou said authorities have already taken a "variety of documents" from the company. He said the findings will be shared with the European Commission and other involved countries.
Associated Press writers Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Sylvain Plazy and Raf Casert in Brussels; Angela Charlton in Paris; and Bryan Carter in Breda and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands contributed to this story.