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France promises inquiry into horsemeat scandal

The Europe-wide scandal over horsemeat sold as beef has spread, as leading French retailers pulled products from their shelves and threats of legal action flew.

France promises inquiry into horsemeat scandal
A 'pure beef' Findus lasagne. Photo: The Local

France promised the results of an urgent inquiry into the scandal within days and the government announced crisis talks with meat industry representatives for Monday night.

As Britain dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat, producers and distributors insisted they had been deceived about the true nature of the meat and vowed to take legal action.

Several ranges of prepared food have been withdrawn in Britain, France and Sweden after it emerged that frozen food companies had used horsemeat instead of beef in  lasagne, other pasta dishes, shepherd's pies and moussaka dishes.

Reflecting the complexity of European food supply chains, the meat has been traced from France through Cyprus and The Netherlands to Romanian abattoirs.

Officials in Bucharest announced an urgent inquiry on Saturday. On Sunday, President Traian Basescu said he feared his country "would be discredited for many years" if a Romanian meat supplier was found to be at fault.

French retailers Auchan, Casino, Carrefour, Cora, Monoprix and Picard announced Sunday they were withdrawing products provided by frozen food giant Findus and French producer Comigel over the horsemeat concerns.

The retailers said the withdrawal was the result of "labeling non-compliance in regards to the nature of the meat" in the products.

French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said officials would have the preliminary results of their inquiry into the scandal by Wednesday. France "will not hesitate" to take legal action if there is evidence that companies had knowingly duped consumers, he added.

His ministry said Hamon and other senior officials would meet with "all players in the industry" for crisis talks on the scandal on Monday.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also made it clear someone would have to pay for what he described as a "abominable and disgusting" affair. "There are clearly people involved making a profit… there need to be tough sanctions." he told France's BFMTV television.

Findus has said it will file a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horsemeat in its supply chain "was not accidental". Its Nordic branch said Sunday it planned to sue Comigel 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 AFP 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."

In Britain, tests have found that some frozen ready meals produced in mainland Europe and labelled as processed beef actually contained up to 100 percent horsemeat.

But Food Minister Owen Paterson dismissed calls for a ban on EU meat imports, describing the idea as a "panic measure". "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 television.

But he added: "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."

Anne McIntosh, the head of the British parliament's food affairs scrutiny panel, had called for the ban. A moratorium was needed until "we can trace the source of the contamination and until we can establish whether there has been fraud", she argued.

The scandal has had particular resonance in Britain, where eating horsemeat is considered taboo. British authorities have also said they are testing to see whether the horsemeat contains a veterinary drug that can be dangerous to humans.

The Findus meals were assembled by Comigel using meat that was provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France. Comigel supplies products to companies in 16 countries.

Spanghero in turn is said to have obtained the meat from Romania via a Cypriot dealer who had subcontracted the deal to a trader in The Netherlands.

A Romanian food industry official pointed the finger of blame at the French importer, saying it was up to that company to verify the meat.

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FOOD & DRINK

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

 
 
 
 
 
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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

 
 
 
 
 
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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

 
 
 
 
 
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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

 
 
 
 
 
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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.

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