PARIS French authorities on Thursday named a French meat wholesaler as the main culprit in Europe's spreading horsemeat scandal, declaring that officials at Spanghero knowingly passed off cheap horsemeat as ground beef for frozen food sold around the continent.
Police in Wales, meanwhile, announced the arrests Thursday of three men on suspicion of fraud at two meat plants inspected earlier this week by the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency.
The two developments were part of an escalating food scare that has raised questions about food controls in the borderless European Union and highlighted how little consumers know about the complex trading operations that get food from producers to wholesalers to processers to stores and onto their dinner table.
Europol, the European Union police agency, is coordinating a continent-wide fraud investigation amid allegations of an international criminal conspiracy to substitute horse for more expensive beef.
In Paris, Benoit Hamon, the government's consumer affairs minister, said it appeared that fraudulent meat sales had been going on for several months, and reached across 13 countries and 28 companies. He said there was plenty of blame to go around, but most of it rested with Spanghero, a wholesaler based in southern France.
Officials at Spanghero denied knowingly buying and reselling horsemeat but French authorities immediately suspended their trading activities.
Hamon said Spanghero was one company in a chain that started with two Romanian slaughterhouses which say they clearly labeled their meat as horse.
The meat was then bought by a Cyprus-registered trader and sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands.
Spanghero bought the meat from the trader, then resold it to the French frozen food processor Comigel. The resulting food was marketed under Sweden-based Findus brand as lasagna and other products labeled as containing ground beef.
Hamon said Spanghero was well aware that the meat was mislabeled when it sold it to Comigel.
"Spanghero knew," Hamon said. "One thing that should have attracted Spanghero's attention? The price."
Hamon said the meat from Romania cost far below the market rate for beef.
A representative for Spanghero said company officials have been interrogated by authorities, who have raided Spanghero headquarters several times in recent days, but no one has been arrested.
The representative insisted the company acted "in good faith" and that it never knew the meat it bought and sold was horsemeat. The representative said he was not authorized to be publicly named according to his contract with Spanghero.
He wouldn't comment on French authorities' insistence that Spanghero should have recognized the meat as horse by its price, smell and color.