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How Romanian workhorses reach the dinner plate

Two horses are harnessed to a cart on a road near Ucea de Jos village, 260 km northwest of Bucharest, Feb. 12, 2013. British and European Union officials will try to work out on Wednesday how to contain a scandal over horsemeat sold as beef which has shocked consumers and exposed flaws in European systems of food safety control.

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Florin Dumitru, like millions of subsistence farmers in Romania, the European Union's second-poorest country, will have no choice when the horse that ploughs his scrap of land can no longer earn its keep.

"What do you have to do when he can't plough or pull a cart any more? You just sell it to the slaughterhouse to butcher it," said Dumitru, 40, who lives in Poroschia, home to one of Romania's big abattoirs.

After slaughter, some of Romania's horses, the only option for the many farmers who can't afford a tractor, have found their way across Europe, through processors and middlemen and finally into frozen meals masquerading as beef.

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Increasing globalization in food production and pressure from retailers to drive down costs has created a fiendishly complicated supply chain, particularly for processed foods with multiple separately sourced inputs, raising the risk of adulteration, whether by design to save money through cheaper ingredients or through poor standards.

Industry sources say the abattoirs pay about 3.5 lei ($1.07) per kilo for a horse, but 5.5 lei/kg for a cow.

The animals butchered in Romania took a roundabout route to British and French dinner tables, via Dutch and Cypriot traders and a French company that supplied meat to a Luxembourg factory belonging to a second French firm, Comigel. It still remains unclear how and where the horse became "beef".

Romanian officials say their abattoirs meet EU standards and their investigation has cleared the two possible sources of the horsemeat, one in Transylvania and the other at Botosani close to the borders with Ukraine and Moldova, of relabelling it.

"If you are looking for a guilty party in this, it is rural poverty in Romania," said Stuart Meikle, an agricultural investment adviser who has run a farming business in Romania.

"This is part of a much wider rural poverty issue. The government has glossed over it, and the international community has largely not bothered to find out what is really happening."

Agriculture in Romania is outdated, with fragmented farmland - Dumitru farms less than an acre (0.3 hectares) - and little mechanisation. For every square kilometre of arable land, Poland has more than six times the number of tractors that Romania can muster. Horse-drawn carts share the road with trucks.

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Around the CarmOlimp abattoir at Ucea de Jos, one of the two cleared by Romanian authorities of labelling horse as beef, horses still plough the plateau below the Fagaras mountains.

In Romania, where the average wage is 350 euros a month, a quarter of France's minimum, agriculture employs 30 per cent of workers but accounts for only 7 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

That compares with 1-2 per cent of GDP in France and Germany and 2-4 percent in other former communist members of the European Union

CarmOlimp executive director Paul Soneriu, whose parents founded the company in 1993, said it produced about 60 tonnes of horsemeat last year, less than 1 per cent of turnover. Most of its business is pork products.

"In Romania, the horse is not a noble animal like in England; it is just an animal for work," he said. "When it becomes a burden for the villager because of its age or lack of feed, the Romanian peasant tries to make some money out of it."

Soneriu, a tall, dark-haired 29-year old, is well connected. Local press dubbed his brother Valentin the richest member of Romania's government when he was appointed a junior agriculture minister last month, estimating his family wealth at up to 25 million euros.

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Speaking in his office among the modern, grey-blue buildings scattered across the snowy Transylvanian landscape, Soneriu denied any wrongdoing and said his company implemented a system of checks that made it impossible to label horse as beef.

He said the abattoir, which was partly built using funds from Brussels, had invested in food safety and product traceability systems to meet EU standards.

Employing some 700 people, CarmOlimp did not allow Reuters access to the working facilities due to safety requirements, but Soneriu said Romania's animal health authority had thoroughly checked the plant, including scrutinising invoices and mail, and found nothing amiss.

The slaughterhouse does not keep frozen horsemeat as stock and buys animals from local farmers when there is an export order. Every animal has to be checked by a vet both before and after purchase, and then again on the production line. It has never processed donkey meat.

"In 12 months of last year we only had three export orders, or three trucks with boneless frozen horse meat, to a private company in the Netherlands," Soneriu said.

The British government and the EU have called for "horsemeat summits" to investigate the food scandal, with British officials surmising that a criminal conspiracy would be found responsible for substituting cheaper horsemeat for beef.

The issue will be on the agenda of the next formal meeting of EU agriculture ministers on Feb. 25.

"I am a little amazed at the whole chain involved; it is a sad indictment of the food industry," said Meikle.

It is not just British consumers who can't stomach the prospect of eating horse; some of Romania's farmers are distressed at the thought of their animal becoming someone's dinner.

George Bandea, 63, took to farming when he retired from a hydro-power plant and has a three-year-old horse that pulls his plough and cart.

"It's like working with a kid. It will take about one year to fully train him," Bandea said at his house near the abattoir in Ucea de Jos.

"I will sell him when he reaches 10 or so. But I cannot sell him to the slaughterhouse to be killed," he said. "After you know and use him you can't send him to death and be cut into pieces. No way. I couldn't do such a thing."

The farmer that buys Bandea's horse might get another 10 or 15 years' work out of him, but his fate might still be the abattoir. What happens thereafter could depend on the ramifications of the current scandal.

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