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Business & Technology

Ikea withdraws meatballs in more than 20 countries amid suspicions that they contained horse meat

February 25th, 2013 6:38 pm by KARL RITTER, Associated Press

STOCKHOLM -- Swedish furniture giant Ikea became entangled in Europe's widening meat scandal Monday, forced to withdraw meatballs from stores across Europe amid suspicions that they contained horse meat.


Stores in the U.S. and Canada were not affected, Ikea said.


The company reacted after authorities in the Czech Republic said they had detected horse DNA in tests of 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) packs of frozen meatballs that were labeled as beef and pork. The Czech State Veterinary Administration said it tested two batches of Ikea meatballs and only one of them contained horse meat. It did not say how much.


Meatballs from the same batch had been sent from a Swedish supplier to 12 other European countries -- Slovakia, Hungary, France, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Ireland -- and would be pulled off the shelves in all of them, Ikea said.


Later Monday, the company expanded the withdrawals to stores in 21 European countries and in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Dominican Republic, all of which were getting meatballs from the same Swedish supplier.


Ikea spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson said that included most European countries, but not Russia and Norway, which use local suppliers. Stores in Poland and Switzerland use both local suppliers and the Swedish one, but would now only use locally produced meatballs, she said.


"This is an extraordinary effort to ensure that no one is worried," Magnusson told The Associated Press.


She added that two weeks ago Ikea tested a range of frozen food products, including meatballs, and found no traces of horse meat. The company plans to conduct its own tests to "validate" the Czech results, she said.


Ikea's North America branch said the U.S. stores get their meatballs from a U.S. supplier.


"Based on the results of our mapping, we can confirm that the contents of the meatballs follow the Ikea recipe and contain only beef and pork from animals raised in the U.S. and Canada," Ikea North America spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss said in a statement.


Ikea is known for its assemble-it-yourself furniture but its trademark blue-and-yellow megastores also have cafeteria-style restaurants offering Swedish dishes such as meatballs served with boiled or mashed potatoes, gravy and lingonberry jam.


European Union officials met Monday to discuss tougher food labeling rules after the discovery of horse meat in a wide range of frozen supermarket meals that were supposed to contain beef or pork. So far those foods include meatballs, burgers, kebabs, lasagna, pizza, tortelloni, ravioli, empanadas and meat pies, among other items.


Authorities say the scandal is a case of fraudulent labeling but does not pose a health risk.


Gunnar Dafgard AB, a family-owned frozen foods company in southwestern Sweden that supplies Ikea's meatballs in Europe, posted a brief statement on its website saying "the batch in question has been blocked and we are investigating the situation."


Spokesman Ola Larsson said the company was conducting its own DNA tests and wouldn't comment further until it has those results.


Sweden's food safety authority said it wasn't taking any action but was waiting for Czech authorities to specify the quantity of horsemeat detected.


"If it's less than 1 percent it could mean that they handled horsemeat at the same facility. If it's more, we assess that it's been mixed into the product," said Karin Cerenius of Sweden's National Food Agency.


The Czech authority said a total of 760 kilograms (1,675 pounds) of the meatballs were stopped from reaching the shelves. It also said it found horse meat in beef burgers imported from Poland during random tests of food products.


"Unfortunately, the testing method we use detects just the quality ... the presence or non-presence of horse DNA," said Jan Vana, a senior official at the State Veterinary Administration. "At the moment, we can't say the quantity of it."


Spanish authorities, meanwhile, announced that traces of horse meat were found in a beef cannelloni product by one of the brands of Nestle, a Switzerland-based food giant.


In a statement on its website, Nestle Spain said it was withdrawing six "La Cocinera" products and one "Buitoni" product from store shelves. It said it was taking the action after traces of horse meat were found in beef bought from a supplier in Spain and that it was taking legal action against the company.


Processed food products -- a business segment with traditionally low margins that often leads producers to hunt for the cheapest suppliers -- often contain ingredients from multiple suppliers in different countries, who themselves at times subcontract production to others, making it hard to monitor every link in the production chain.


Standardized DNA checks with meat suppliers or more stringent labeling rules on disclosing the origin of processed food's ingredients will add costs that producers will most likely hand over to consumers, making food more expensive.


The scandal has created a split in the European Union between nations like Britain, which see further rules as a protectionist hindrance of free trade under the 27-nation bloc's single market, and those calling for tougher regulation, including Austria and Germany.


"Consumers have every right to the greatest-possible transparency," German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said.


At the meeting in Brussels, several EU agriculture ministers called upon the Commission, the bloc's executive arm, to speed up presenting a proposal on tougher regulation by this summer.


The scandal began in Ireland in mid-January when the country announced the results of its first-ever DNA tests on beef products. It tested frozen beef burgers taken from store shelves and found that more than a third of brands at five supermarkets contained at least a trace of horse. The sample of one brand sold by the British supermarket kingpin Tesco had more than 25 percent horse meat.

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