Firms At Center Of Horsemeat Scandal Deny Fraud

PARIS (AP) -- Two meat vendors at the heart of a growing European uproar over horsemeat labeled as beef and hidden in frozen meals have denied any fraud, with one French wholesaler saying Friday he has proof that his company is innocent.

Barthelemy Aguerre, chief of the French wholesaler Spanghero, told RTL radio that his company in southern France did receive a lot of horsemeat along with beef in its shipments "and we didn't touch" it. He did not provide details or specify whether he reported the horsemeat delivery, saying only, "I will prove my innocence."

French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said Thursday that it appeared fraudulent meat sales over several months reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. Hamon fingered Spanghero as a major culprit, but said there was plenty of blame to go around.

In the Netherlands, the lawyer for the Dutch meat vendor Draap said the company denied misleading anyone, although the attorney acknowledged that Draap's director, Jan Fasen, had been previously convicted of mislabeling horsemeat as halal meat.

"Clients get what they order," lawyer Rogier Hoerchner said in a statement. "Draap cannot see what is on the label of end products."

Europol, the European Union police agency, is coordinating a continentwide fraud investigation amid allegations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.

Police in the U.K. on Thursday announced the arrests of three men on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants inspected earlier this week by the country's Food Standards Agency.

The escalating horsemeat scandal has raised questions about food controls in the 27-nation European Union — and highlighted how little consumers know about the complex trading operations that get food from producers to wholesalers to processers to stores and onto their dinner table.

Hamon said Spanghero was one company in a food production chain that started with two Romanian slaughterhouses, which say they clearly labeled their meat as horse.

The meat was then bought by a Cyprus-registered trader and sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands.

Spanghero bought the meat from the trader, then resold it to the French frozen food processor Comigel. The resulting food was marketed under the Sweden-based Findus brand as lasagna and other products as containing ground beef.

Hamon said Spanghero was well aware that the meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel.

But Aguerre, the Spanghero executive, said if there was a customs code indicating horsemeat, his company knew nothing about it.

Corder reported from Amsterdam.