A fraudulent meat trader in the south of France was the probable source of horse meat in British Findus beef lasagne, the French government said last night.
The French consumer minister, BenoÃ®t Hamon, said that an official investigation had uncovered "strong suspicions" that the Spanghero company in Castlenaudary, in Languedoc, had mislabelled 750 tons of Romanian horse meat as beef.
In the UK, the first arrests were made over the food scandal, with police and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) swooping on two meat plants suspected of slipping undeclared horse meat into burgers and kebabs.
At the Farmbox Meats de-boning factory, near Aberystwyth, they arrested Dafydd Raw-Rees, 64, the owner, and a second man aged 42. In a simultaneous operation a 63-year-old man at the Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, was arrested and all three were being questioned last night on suspicion of fraud.
The operation was disclosed minutes before Asda became the latest supermarket in Britain to be caught up in the crisis. It took a 500g beef bolognese sauce off the shelves, the first time a fresh beef product has tested positive for undeclared horse. Asda also withdrew a 600g beef broth soup, 500g meat feast pasta sauce and a 400g chilli con carne soup as a "precaution".
Like many other developments in the scandal, the news was slipped out shortly before 7pm.
It also emerged last night the Prime Minister believes supermarkets should have done more to explain how the contamination took place and what checks were made. "It is not acceptable for retailers to remain silent while their customers have been misled. The supermarkets need to justify their action and reassure the public," a No 10 source was quoted as saying.
As the Government sought to reassure the public, the FSA revealed that the drug phenylbutazone ("bute"), had been found in eight out of 206 carcasses tested over seven days. The drug is linked to a rare blood disorder in humans.
The French investigators disclosed that more than 550 tons of the meat were shipped to a factory in Luxembourg owned by the French company Comigel, which makes frozen meals for Findus and a dozen other European brands. Comigel had been "tricked", Mr Hamon said, but should have checked the meat and accompanying documents more rigorously.
Spanghero - founded by the brothers of one of France's greatest rugby heroes, Walter Spanghero - was suspended last night from meat trading. The French government plans to bring criminal proceedings against the company which no longer has any connection with the Spanghero family.
"The first elements of the investigation has shown that the Romanian horse meat was first labelled as beef by Spanghero," Mr Hamon told a press conference last night. "Our inquiries suggest the company knew - or at least that there are strong suspicions they knew - that they were selling horse meat as beef."
The investigation by the French consumer fraud agency has uncovered documents suggesting that the mislabelling started "several months" ago. It has cleared the Romanian abattoir of all blame. The meat was exported from Romania and handled by a Dutch trading company, based in Cyprus. So far, the French investigation has found no documents to suggest the Dutch company, Draap Trading, was complicit in the suspected fraud by Spanghero.
Mr Hamon believes the French company was guilty of "fraud for economic gain". Spanghero later rejected the allegations. In a formal statement, it said: "Spanghero reaffirms [that it] placed an order for beef... [that it] was led to believe that it received beef, and sold back what it thought was beef."