French government has announced today that meat processing company Spanghero knowingly sold horsemeat labelled as beef.
Spanghero’s licence is being suspended while a probe continues, agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll said.
The firm has denied the allegations, saying it only ever dealt in meat it believed to be beef.
A widening scandal over mislabelled horsemeat has affected at least 12 European countries.
In the UK, three people have been arrested on suspicion of fraud in connection with the sale of horsemeat.
Two suspects were detained at a meat processing plant near Aberystwyth in Wales, and a third was arrested at an abattoir in West Yorkshire.
The French government believes that the sale of horsemeat labelled as beef went on for six months and involved around 750 tonnes of meat.
Spanghero imported meat from Romania and sold it on to another company, Comigel, which made frozen ready meals at its factory in Luxembourg.
French consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon said the meat left Romania clearly and correctly labelled as horse. It was afterwards that it was relabelled as beef.
“From the investigation, it would seem that the first agent or actor in this network who stamped <<beef>> on horsemeat from Romania was Spanghero,” Benoit Hamon said.
There was “no reason to doubt the good faith” of the Romanian abattoir that originally provided the meat, Benoit Hamon added.
The investigation says some blame may rest with Comigel, which made the ready meals sold around Europe.
Staff there should have noticed anomalies in the paperwork, and realized from the smell and look of the meat once it was defrosted that it was not beef, Benoit Hamon said.
Spanghero has strongly denied wrongdoing.
“Spanghero confirms having placed an order for beef, having been led to believe it received beef, and having sold back what it thought was beef, properly labelled as such, in line with European and French regulations,” the company said in a statement.
The latest country to be hit by the crisis is Germany, where some supermarket chains have removed frozen lasagne from sale after traces of horsemeat were detected.
The widening scandal has raised questions about the complexity of the food industry’s supply chains across the Europe.
The UK has asked the European investigative agency Europol to coordinate a continent-wide investigation into an alleged international conspiracy to pass horsemeat off as beef.
On Wednesday the EU urged member states to conduct random DNA tests for horsemeat in beef products from 1st of March.
EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said the programme of random tests should report after 30 days, but testing should continue for three months.
Tonio Borg was speaking after a meeting in Brussels with agriculture ministers from affected countries.
He said member states should also test for the presence of the veterinary medicine phenylbutazone – known as “bute”.
The painkiller is used to treat horses – particularly racehorses – but is considered potentially harmful to humans.
On Thursday Britain’s Food Standard Agency – the FSA – said that tests found eight horses, killed in the UK, tested positive for bute and six may have entered the food chain in France.
But England’s chief medical officer said the highest level detected posed “very little risk to human health”.
The prime minister’s spokesman said the UK was working closely with the French authorities to track the carcasses.