More than 7,000 tests across the European Union have shown that nearly 5 percent of the food products labeled as beef contained horse meat, but there is no danger to public health, officials said Tuesday.
The tests showed that the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, or bute, was present in about .5 percent of the horse meat, the EU said in a statement. Bute is banned for human use because in rare cases it causes severe side effects, but veterinary experts say there is little risk from consuming small amounts of the drug in horse meat.
"Today's findings have confirmed that this is a matter of food fraud and not of food safety," European Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said in the statement. He said restoring consumer confidence was vital, and promised to propose in the coming months tougher fines for the fraudulent labeling of food.
He also pledged to develop measures "to strengthen the controls along the food chain."
The scandal broke in mid-January, when Ireland's food safety watchdog announced that it had discovered traces of horse DNA in burger products sold by major British and Irish supermarkets. The mislabeled products came from Irish processor Silvercrest Foods, which withdrew 10 million burgers from store shelves.
Irish officials first blamed an imported powdered beef-protein additive used to pad out cheap burgers, then frozen blocks of slaughterhouse leftovers imported from Poland — an indication of the complexity of the food-supply chain that was about to be revealed to an alarmed European public.
Subsequently, traces of horse meat turned up across Europe in frozen supermarket meals such as burgers and lasagna, as well as in in fresh beef pasta sauce, on restaurant menus, in school lunches and in hospital meals.
Millions of products were pulled from store shelves in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and supermarkets and food suppliers were told to test processed beef products for horse DNA.
The results announced Tuesday by the European Commission were drawn from 7,259 tests carried about by national authorities in the 27-country EU.
The statement said that 4,144 DNA tests on beef products for the presence of horse meat were conducted; 193 samples — 4.66 percent — tested positive. And 3,115 samples were tested for bute; 16 samples — 0.51 percent — showed traces of it.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands on Tuesday, a meat processing plant and wholesaler suspected of mixing undeclared horse meat with beef was declared bankrupt by one judge and the owner went to another court in a bid to halt a huge recall that has crippled his business.
Dutch authorities are recalling 50,000 tons of meat sold as beef across Europe because its exact source cannot be established and it may contain horse meat. The company at the center of the accusation says that authorities are overreacting and the recall is unnecessary.
A court in the eastern Dutch city of Den Bosch declared owner Willy Selten's plant bankrupt. He then went to a separate hearing to try to stop the recall.