BEIRUT

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Shops pull horsemeat in beef’s clothing

A box of Findus “beef” lasagne from an independent food store in London.

BEIRUT: The Lebanese firm that imports European frozen food meals found to contain horsemeat said Monday that the mislabeled “beef” products have been pulled from local supermarket shelves.

Six European grocery chains across Europe recalled frozen meals manufactured by the Swedish company Findus that were labeled as 100 percent beef after the company’s French meat supplier warned British retailers that certain products were found to contain between 60 to 100 percent horsemeat.

Reine Daoud, a product manager at Gabriel Bocti, the Lebanese firm which currently has a contract to import Findus’ frozen foods, told The Daily Star that it has been supplying between two to four food retailers in Lebanon with hachis parmentier and lasagna, two of the fraudulent products fingered by European food safety regulators. She said that both items have been taken off the market since news of the horsemeat contamination broke.

“The first time we imported these products was at the end of January and these are niche products so the quantity we distributed in the market is very small,” Daoud said. “We have retrieved the products from the two or three stores we distributed them to and can guarantee that the situation [in Europe] does not concern the Findus products we import to Lebanon.”

Daoud declined to name the individual stores to whom the firm supplied the lasagna and French shepherd’s pie.

Like the European grocery chains that sell Findus frozen foods, Bocti relies on Findus to test the quality of their products, and Daoud said that the company had routinely assured them that their foods met international food safety standards.

There is currently no evidence that the horsemeat poses a public health risk, although European food safety regulators are testing the Findus products for traces of an equine hormone that may be dangerous to humans.

British, French and Romanian government officials and corporate executives have been busy dodging blame for the horsemeat scandal, batting accusations at each other in the international news media.

French Prime Minister Francois Hollande said Monday the criminals responsible for mislabeling horsemeat would be prosecuted and called their behavior unacceptable. He advised his citizens to buy their meat locally.

France’s Agriculture Minister said the incident underscored the need to make the origins of food easier to trace by simplifying Europe’s system of wholesale meat trading, while Britain’s Environment Minister said the scandal is the result of an “extensive” criminal conspiracy.

Comigel, the French firm that supplies processed meat to Findus, passed the buck to its French beef supplier, Spanghero, which in turn kicked the can to the two Romanian abattoirs from whom it buys its meat.

The Romanian Prime Minister refused to allow Romania to be labeled as “the usual suspect.”

“I am very angry to be very honest,” he told reporters at a news conference.

French and European health officials vowed to conduct inquiries and tests this week while private sector players pledged to take their various claims of fraud to court.

Few of the cogs in the complex governmental-corporate meat supply chain called for a major overhaul of the most obvious culprit in the horsemeat scandal: an international food trading system so tortuous, fragmented and complex that it is nearly impossible to hold perpetrators accountable for acts of fraud such as this.

The owner of Societe Jabra, the firm which was contracted to bring Findus products into Lebanon until about two years ago, said he had imported the company’s lasagna to the country a long time ago, but had thought it was made in Switzerland, not France.

The Consumer Affairs Directorate responsible for prosecuting fraudulently labeled products at the Economy and Trade Ministry refused to comment on the status of Findus products in Lebanon. – With Agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2013, on page 5.

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