Pony Burgers? Europe Gags on a Horsemeat Scandal

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ANDREW YATES / AFP / Getty Images

Horses are pictured beside the Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in Todmorden, northwest England, on Feb. 13, 2013

What started as concern over horsemeat in burgers in Ireland and the U.K. has now blown up into a Europe-wide scandal and stoked cross-border tension throughout the Continent. The scandal started small, when earlier this year in Ireland horse DNA was detected in burgers sold in supermarkets there and across the U.K. But since then, various packaged beef products sold in several supermarket chains have been found to contain anywhere from 60% to 100% horsemeat. (Other beef-labeled products have been found to contain traces of pork.)

Though the horsemeat was discovered in packaged frozen lasagnas, burgers and Bolognese sauce in several British supermarkets, the problem appears to have originated several steps earlier in the production process. But pinpointing exactly how, and where, the horsemeat got into the contaminated products has proved difficult.

“It is already clear that we are dealing with a Europe-wide supply network,” U.K. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson told the House of Commons on Feb. 11. “It is unacceptable that people have been deceived in this way. There appears to have been criminal activity in an attempt to defraud the consumer.”

As authorities have attempted to trace the products backward to determine exactly where horsemeat entered the food supply chain — and whether the addition was by mistake or criminal design — they’ve shone light on just how murky and unregulated the European meat market is.

The frozen lasagnas, for example, are from the Swedish brand Findus and clearly stated they contained beef. However, Findus had the frozen lasagnas prepared by a company called Comigel, which has headquarters in France but factories in Luxembourg. French investigators have discovered that Comigel received the offending meat from another French supplier called Spanghero, which in turn received the meat from a slaughterhouse in Romania, apparently arranged by traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands.

The chain of connections between retailer and slaughterhouse appears to be so opaque, it prompted French Minister for Consumer Goods Benoît Hamon to describe the system as “mafia-like.” While Europeans have different views on eating horse — Brits typically are repulsed by the idea, but the French aren’t so averse — consumers across the region are irate about being hoodwinked. And with the number of companies and countries involved, the fallout of the contamination has led to much finger-pointing.

Findus told TIME in an e-mail that it had already severed its relationship with Comigel in Luxembourg and that the company “has taken proactive steps ever since the horsemeat issue broke in the U.K.” Findus has also issued a statement saying they were currently “taking legal advice” on whether to pursue legal action against its supplier. For its part, Comigel did not reply to TIME’s requests for comment. And according to the Associated Press, Spanghero has issued a statement that meat was marked as beef when it arrived from Romania.

European leaders are also struggling to rein in the scandal. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has spoken out to defend the unnamed slaughterhouse from accusations. “From all the data we have at the moment, there is no breach of European rules committed by companies from Romania or on Romanian territory,” he told a press conference on Feb. 11.

Meanwhile, British meat suppliers were pulled into the fray on Feb. 13, when the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shut down a slaughterhouse in north England and a meat plant in Wales after an investigation revealed horse had been used to make burgers and kebab meat. While it’s unclear whether the horsemeat was intentionally or mistakenly mislabeled, Andrew Rhodes of the FSA told the BBC that they intend to “continue following it through until there is nothing left to find.”

All the horsemeat is being tested for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, commonly called bute and forbidden from entering the human food chain, though there are no current reasons to believe the meat poses a health risk. Though banning food imports is forbidden for European member states under E.U. rules, Paterson told the BBC on Feb. 10 that “if we find that there is a product that could be injurious to public health, I will take the necessary action.”

On Wednesday, Paterson flew to Brussels to meet with ministers from countries affected by the horsemeat contamination, including Ireland, France, Romania, Luxembourg, Sweden and Poland, to discuss the scandal.