- Associated Press - Thursday, February 14, 2013

PARIS (AP) - The price, smell and color should have been clear tipoffs something was wrong with shipments of horsemeat that were fraudulently labeled as beef, French authorities said Thursday. The economy minister pinned the bulk of the blame on a French wholesaler at the heart of the growing scandal in Europe.

Britain’s food regulator, meanwhile, said six horse carcasses that tested positive for an equine painkiller may have entered the human food chain in France and that horsemeat tainted with the medicine may have been sold to consumers “for some time.”

In Paris, Benoit Hamon, the economic and consumer affairs minister, said it appeared that the fraudulent sales had been going on for several months, and reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. He said there was plenty of blame to go around, but most of it rested with Spanghero, a wholesaler he said was well aware that the cheap meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel, the frozen food processor.

Spanghero knew,” Hamon said. “One thing that should have attracted Spanghero’s attention? The price.”

Hamon said the mislabeled meat from Romania was far below the market rate for beef. Spanghero was to be suspended immediately and the results of the investigation have been forwarded to prosecutors, officials said.

A representative for Spanghero did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. In a statement earlier this week, Spanghero said it does not buy, sell or process horsemeat. The company said it was cooperating with the investigation and would sue whoever was responsible for the fraud.

Comigel itself was not blameless, Hamon said. The paperwork had significant irregularities, including failure to specify country of origin.

“And once the meat was defrosted, we can ask ourselves why Comigel didn’t notice that the color and odor was not that of beef,” Hamon said.

Britain’s Food Standards Agency said eight out of 206 horses it checked had tested positive for phenylbutazone, commonly known as bute. It said of those eight, six _ all slaughtered by a firm in southwest England _ were sent to France and “may have entered the food chain.”

The agency said it was working with French officials to trace the meat.

Thousands of meat products are being tested for the drug, and for horse DNA, after horsemeat was found in food products labeled as beef across Europe.

Pan-European police agency Europol is coordinating a continent-wide fraud investigation amid allegations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.

Almost no horsemeat is consumed in Britain, where hippophagy _ eating horses _ is widely considered taboo. But thousands of horses killed in the country each year are exported for meat to countries including France and Belgium, which have a culture of eating horsemeat.

The scandal has uncovered the labyrinthine workings of the global food industry, where meat from a Romanian slaughterhouse can end up in British lasagna by way of companies in Luxembourg and France.

It has also raised the uncomfortable idea that Europeans may unwittingly have been consuming racehorses, which are often treated with bute.

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