THOUSANDS of DNA tests will be carried out across Europe to find out how widespread the horse-meat crisis is and the crime-fighting agency Europol will run the criminal investigation.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney revealed a raft of new measures in Brussels last night to tackle the widening scandal, as Switzerland became the latest country to discover horse meat in frozen ready meals.
Some 2,500 DNA tests on beef products will be carried out across all 27 EU member states next month, while another 4,000 will be done on horse meat to establish how much of it is contaminated with the carcinogenic horse medicine phenylbutazone, commonly known as 'bute'.
Further tests will be carried out over the following months, but the intention is to get initial results by April to establish the scale of the horse meat fraud in beef products, EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said.
The new testing regime would be on top of anything already being carried out by individual member states, and would ensure systematic testing in every country, he said.
The announcement of new measures came following a meeting chaired by Simon Coveney involving European ministers from countries directly affected by the horse meat scandal including Britain, Luxembourg, France, Sweden, Romania and Poland.
Europol will be asked today to take over the central role in the criminal investigation.
"I wouldn't call it negligent, I'd call it fraudulent misuse of the labelling system for economic gain. Europol will co-ordinate the different criminal investigations," Mr Borg said.
He stressed that there were no indications so far of any food health or safety issue linked to the consumption of horse meat.
The EU's food-traceability system had helped as there was no difficulty in establishing where the meat had originated, been shipped to and processed, Mr Borg said.
He added: "The question is who did what, where and when and I am confident we'll get to the bottom of it."
Asked about reports that a Dutch trader could have supplied horse meat to the French foodmaker Comigel, Simon Coveney said it would be dangerous to speculate until all the facts were in.
"When you make accusations, you can do huge damage to the reputation of a company or a country, so you need to be absolutely sure that the facts and the data back up those accusations," he said.
However, he expected to see results from the Irish, French and British investigations quite soon.
"This all started because of one burger testing positive for equine DNA but it quickly became apparent there was something wrong with the system, as opposed to being some kind of freak result," said Mr Coveney.
It would be wrong to say it was endemic at this stage, but there was more than one person or company involved, he added.
The minister said that they were also calling on the EU Commission to fast-track a report outlining new measures for country of origin labelling on processed meat products.
It was very important, he said, to take measures to reassure consumers and prevent this happening again.
The EU's standing committee on animal health will be asked to approve the new testing regime tomorrow. It will then go before the full council of agriculture ministers on February 25.
The Swiss supermarket giant Co-op announced yesterday that it had discovered horse meat in its own-brand lasagne that had been supplied by Comigel.
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