DUBLIN — An Irish slaughterhouse has been caught labeling horse meat as beef and shipping it to a company in the Czech Republic, Ireland's government said Friday, in the latest crackdown on alleged fraud in Europe's month-old scandal.
No other European government has pinpointed a single slaughterhouse that was mislabeling horse meat as beef. Until now, any companies found selling meat products containing hidden amounts of horse have insisted they were duped by others, while suspected slaughterhouses have insisted they either did not handle horses or labeled all horse-meat exports correctly.
But Ireland says its fraud detectives have identified the practice at B&F Meats, a small slaughterhouse in the County Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir that is licensed to debone both cows and horses, and immediately shut down the facility.
Ireland's Agriculture Department said in a statement that detectives had discovered that B&F Meats was shipping horse meat "to a single customer in the Czech Republic ... using a label in the Czech language which, when translated, refers to beef." Officials said the mislabeling was happening in the plant and not later in the supply chain, which included a British-based meat trader.
No officials at the plant were arrested, and Irish officials declined to specify the volume of horse meat involved or identify the Czech company that imported it.
European officials have said the region-wide scandal is the result of fraud, and possibly an international criminal conspiracy to pass off cheap horse meat as more expensive beef.
British authorities have shut down a slaughterhouse and a meat processor on suspicion of passing off horse meat as beef. But no charges have been filed, and the businesses deny wrongdoing.
Dutch food safety experts have raided a meat processing plant as part of a criminal investigation into horse meat fraud. The unidentified company, which was temporarily closed, is believed to have processed horse meat from the Netherlands and Ireland, and mixed it with beef before selling it as "pure" beef.
Similarly, French authorities have identified the meat processor Spanghero as a source of horse meat in the human food chain, but it insists it was duped by foreign suppliers stretching from Luxembourg to Romania. And Romanian authorities said in reply that any of its horse meat sold for export was correctly labeled as horse.
On Friday, France's Agriculture Ministry announced that some meat goods at Spanghero were vaguely labeled and required further investigation. The ministry said in a statement it also was seeking help from Dutch authorities to investigate Spanghero's supplies from a Dutch-based trader who "seems to play a central role."
Spanghero has been permitted to resume making sausages and processed meat products, but remains barred from selling meat to other food manufacturers.
In Ireland, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said he was "seriously concerned about this development" at B&F Meats.
B&F is the oldest slaughterhouse licensed to process horse meat in Ireland, and its product is legally sold to Irish and British makers of pet food as well as to customers in France, where horse meat is widely available for human consumption.
Nobody answered the telephone Friday at B&F, and company director Ted Farrell also did not pick up his telephone.
The scandal began in Ireland in mid-January when the country's Food Safety Authority announced the results of its first-ever DNA tests on beef products. It tested frozen beef burgers taken from store shelves and found that more than a third of brands at five supermarkets contained at least a trace of horse. The sample of one brand sold by British supermarket kingpin Tesco was more than a quarter horse.
Such discoveries have spread like wildfire across Europe as governments, supermarkets, meat traders and processors began their own DNA testing of products labeled beef and have been forced to withdraw tens of millions of products from store shelves.
More than a dozen nations have detected horse flesh in processed products such as factory-made burger patties, lasagnas, meat pies and meat-filled pastas. The investigations have been complicated by elaborate supply chains involving multiple cross-border middlemen.
In the latest such move Friday, frozen food maker Birds Eye withdrew three microwave-ready dishes – spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd's pie and lasagna – from all supermarket shelves in Britain and Ireland because it suspected that the products might contain horse meat. A DNA test on another Birds Eye-branded product on sale in Belgium, a chili con carne dish, determined it contained 2 percent horse.
All four products were made by one of Birds Eye's subcontractors in Belgium, a maker of ready meals and kebab meats called Frigilunch.
Birds Eye is one of the best-known frozen food brands in both Europe and the United States, but the brand has different owners on each side of the Atlantic.
Also Friday, British catering firm Sodexo – a major supplier to schools, care homes and the military – said it was withdrawing all frozen beef products after one dish tested positive for horse DNA.
Ireland previously had found no evidence to show that any horses slaughtered in the country ended up in the human food chain. The initial discovery of horse in Irish-made burger patties for sale in Ireland and Britain was linked to suppliers in Poland. Polish authorities insisted they could find no evidence of wrongdoing there.
The profit motive is obvious for fraudsters.
Horse meat might fetch prices of (EURO)600 to (EURO)700 ($800 to $950) a ton, while beef costs around (EURO)4,000 ($5,500) a ton. And without DNA testing – rarely done until recent days because horse meat is not dangerous to eat – the chances of detection are remote.
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Angela Charlton in Paris and Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.