Horsemeat Legal Action Starts In Europe

Britain is to hold crisis talks with other countries over the horsemeat scandal today as the first court cases related to the scare begin.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson told Sky News he would be talking to ministers in Europe about how to tackle the "sickening" contamination.

An unprecedented product screening has already been launched in the UK after some products on sale were found to be 100% horsemeat.

Romania has now angrily denied that his country was to blame, insisting meat at two of its abattoirs had not been falsely labelled.

Amid concerns about the complicated supply chain, an experienced haulage worker has told Sky News that meat is being transported in poor hygiene conditions.

Mr Paterson has sought to play down fears that the scandal could pose a health risk, but some believe its full scale has yet to emerge.

"I understand court cases will begin in certain continental countries today between processors and suppliers and I very much hope that this is resolved rapidly," he said.

"I will be talking to ministerial counterparts in Europe today because it is absolutely intolerable that a fraud is being carried out on the public."

The Cabinet minister, who will update MPs later, admitted the current supply system was flawed and that random testing and spot checks were being discussed.

However, he has already admitted the Government is powerless to impose a ban on meat imports unless the contaminated beef is found to be a danger to people's health.

"Arbitrary measures like that are not actually going to help. Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market," he told Sky News.

"Should this move from an issue of labelling and fraud and there is evidence of material which represents a serious threat to human health, I won't hesitate to take action."

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said there is no evidence to suggest there is any danger.

But tests are being carried out for phenylbutazone - known as "bute" - because animals treated with the drug are not allowed to enter the food chain.

Findus, which had to recall its beef lasagnes made by French food supplier Comigel after they were found to be up to 100% horsemeat, has said it will file a legal complaint in France.

Its Nordic branch says it plans to sue Comigel - which provides products to companies in 16 countries - and its suppliers.

"This is a breach of contract and fraud," said the head of Findus Nordic, Jari Latvanen. "Such behaviour on the part of a supplier is unacceptable."

Comigel head Erick Lehagre told reporters the company had been fooled by its suppliers and vowed to seek compensation.

"We were victims and it's now clear that the problem was not with Findus nor with Comigel," he said. "This represents a very heavy loss for us and we will seek compensation."

The Findus meals were assembled by Comigel using meat provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France.

French anti-fraud agents searched the premises of Comigel and Spanghero on Monday. Both firms deny any wrongdoing.

Spanghero said in a statement on its website that it had bought products labelled as beef from Romania and has also threatened to sue.

But Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Spanghero did not have a "direct contract" with Romanian firms.

He insisted investigations show "no violation of European rules and standards" by the two abattoirs pinpointed, adding: "Romania cannot accept to be the usual suspect."

The scandal has spread across Europe as details of the elaborate supply chain in the meat industry emerged.

Products have been removed from shops in Britain, France and Sweden as producers and distributors insisted they had been deceived about their contents.

French consumer safety authorities have said companies from Romania, Cyprus and the Netherlands as well as its own firms were involved.

France's Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon warned it "will not hesitate" to to take legal action if there is evidence companies had knowingly duped consumers.

Mr Hamon said an initial investigation by French safety authorities had found the French company Poujol bought frozen meat from a Cypriot trader.

That trader had bought it from a Dutch food supplier, who in turn bought it from two Romanian slaughterhouses, he claimed.

Poujol then supplied a factory in Luxembourg, owned by Comigel - which then supplied Findus.