The president of French meat processor Spanghero promised on Friday to disprove allegations that his firm knowingly sold horsemeat labeled as beef, and accused the government of being too quick to point the finger.
In a widening scandal involving horsemeat in ready meals sold across Europe, Dutch inspectors began taking samples to discover whether shipments contained a drug given to some horses that is banned for animals intended for human consumption.
French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon on Thursday released details of an investigation into Spanghero which he said indicated the firm was the likely culprit in a scandal that has enraged consumers across the continent and implicated traders and abattoirs from Cyprus to Romania.
"I don't know who is behind this, but I can tell you it's not us. I'm astonished," Spanghero boss Barthelemy Aguerre told Europe 1 radio. "I think we will prove our innocence and that of my associates. I think the government has been too quick."
The French inquiry found that Spanghero labeled meat as beef when it knew what it was processing may have been horse.
Hamon said Spanghero could not have failed to notice the meat it was importing was much cheaper than beef, and there was no indication that a Romanian firm supplying the meat had mislabeled what was in fact horse.
Outside Spanghero's factory - a red and white corrugated iron-clad building in the town of Castelnaudary near the southwestern city of Toulouse - workers were throwing carcasses, sausages and burgers into a dumper truck on Friday, although it was not immediately clear why they were doing so.
The privately owned firm, which was founded by brothers of 1970s French rugby captain Walter Spanghero, has had its operating license suspended and will face legal action if the suspicions are confirmed.
The Paris prosecutor is now reviewing the investigation.
In the Netherlands, health inspectors have begun taking samples at 100 meat companies to determine whether shipments of beef contained horse or the drug phenylbutazone, the Economic Affairs Ministry said.
Officials have stressed that horsemeat itself poses no specific health threat. However, the drug commonly known as bute - an anti-inflammatory painkiller for sporting horses - is banned for animals intended for eating by humans because it is potentially harmful.
Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) said six horses slaughtered in the UK that tested positive for the drug were exported to France and may have entered the human food chain.
Authorities in the northwestern English county of Lancashire said they were recalling pies from 47 local school kitchens after they provisionally tested positive for traces of horse DNA. "This does not appear to be a food safety issue but I've no doubt parents will agree we need to take a very firm line with suppliers," County Councilor Susie Charles said in a statement.
British food safety authorities were due to announce later on Friday the first preliminary test results of beef products for the presence of horsemeat.
"SCAPEGOATS FOR POLITICIANS"
Speaking on behalf of Spanghero's employees, Marketing Director Christophe Giry said the firm had cooperated with French investigators, who had reassured him the problem had not come from Spanghero.
An emotional Giry expressed concern about the livelihoods of company employees and their families. "As soon as our license was suspended, all our clients who had until then had complete trust in us, pulled their business. This verdict by Hamon and Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll has condemned to death 300 families as well as our partners," he said.
"We're being used as scapegoats for politicians and everybody," he added. "They needed to find a head."
Aguerre earlier said his company had analyzed the meat as soon as the scandal broke and discovered that some had been a mixture of beef and horsemeat. "It shows that Spanghero is not behind this deception. It comes from elsewhere," he said.
Hamon told Europe 1 radio that it was not up to him to say who was guilty, but added that it was clear something was not right at Spanghero.
"There are sufficient facts which show that at the very least there was a lot of negligence," he said. "Millions of consumers have been duped so we had to act quickly."
The scandal, which has triggered recalls of ready meals and damaged confidence in Europe's vast and complex food industry, erupted last month when tests carried out in Ireland revealed that some beef products also contained horsemeat.
Laurent Spanghero, who sold the company in 2009 when it was in trouble for a symbolic one euro, said that while his family was not responsible, everything had to be done to save jobs in the town of 11,500 where there were few other prospects.
"My first thought is for the employees. It's long-term unemployment that is coming if we are not capable in the next three days of resolving this," said the tearful septuagenarian, brother of Walter Spanghero.
"My second thought goes to our kids and grandchildren that carry our name. We have always taught them the values of courage and loyalty and today we have been plunged into dishonor," he said on television.
The British government and the European Union have called for a high-level meeting to investigate the scandal and it will be on the agenda of a February 25 EU farm ministers' meeting.
The European Commission has proposed increased DNA-testing of meat products to try to establish the scale of a scandal which has exposed just how many countries a portion of mince may have travelled through before ending up in frozen lasagne.
(Additional reporting and writing by John Irish; Editing by Jon Boyle and David Stamp)