PARIS: A French meat-processing company at the centre of a Europe-wide food fraud scandal was Saturday refusing to say where it had sourced horsemeat that found its way into frozen beef products in at least three countries.
As the manufacturer of the frozen lasagne, meat sauces and other products involved in the scandal issued an apology, France's agriculture minister warned that companies found to have knowingly misled consumers would be "severely punished."
Comigel, the French company which manufactured the mislabelled products, has blamed its meat supplier, Spanghero, for the scandal and said that the horsemeat originally came from a Romanian abattoir.
But officials at Spanghero's headquarters in Castelnaudary in southwestern France refused to say where the meat had come from and whether it had passed through intermediaries, and indicated a statement would be made later in the day.
"I cannot tell you anything, you will have to wait for the statement," a member of the management team told AFP.
Comigel chairman Erich Lehagre meanwhile apologised to the company's customers, retailers of frozen products in more than 16 countries which include the Swedish-based brand Findus and pan-European supermarket Aldi.
"We are aware of the very strong feelings this has given rise to, particularly in Britain," he told AFP.
Comigel products have been removed from the shelves in Britain, France and Sweden.
According to Lehagre, Comigel believed it was being supplied with 100 percent French beef from Spanghero, which is a subsidiary of Lur Berri, a Basque agricultural cooperative.
The group has 5,000 farm suppliers and turnover in excess of one billion euros, having grown quickly in recent years by diversifying into food processing.
Lehagre said Comigel, which produces its frozen products in Luxembourg but is based in Metz, France, had notified British and French authorities as soon as he had become aware of the problem.
Local food safety officials say the company handled the discovery of horsemeat appropriately but questions are now being asked as to why Findus and Aldi did not immediately order product recalls.
It remained unclear whether Spanghero could defend itself by blaming its suppliers.
The company was established by two former France rugby players, Claude and Laurent Spanghero, in the 1970s and initially had a reputation as a producer of high-quality local products in a region renowned for its rustic cuisine, typified by cassoulet, a celebrated stew of various meats and beans in a rich tomato sauce.
The rugbymen were bought out in 2009 by Lur Berri and the company's reputation has since plummeted to the extent that there is a Facebook page dedicated to its "inedible products" that has 25,000 members.
The company was forced in 2011 to withdraw 12 tonnes of minced meat from the market because of fears of contamination with E.coli, although the meat in question was subsequently declared free of the potentially fatal bacteria.
If Spanghero is found to have misled Comigel, its directors could face criminal proceedings.
"All fraud constitutes an offence that undermines confidence in the entire food chain and has to be severely punished," Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll warned in a statement.
"It cannot be acceptable to sell a product pretending to include ingredients that are not what the consumer finds on his plate," he added.
France's anti-fraud body, the DGCCRF, has launched an investigation into the horsemeat scandal.