Opening its doors to prove it has nothing to hide, a Romanian abattoir at the heart of a food scandal that has engulfed Europe insists it has never tried to pass horsemeat off as beef.
Located in a snow-covered field in the remote northeastern village of Roma where residents can still be seen using horse-drawn carts, the unassuming Doly-Com abattoir has found itself in the eye of the storm after being identified as one of the sources of horsemeat posing as beef in frozen food sold in British supermarkets.
But Doly-Com director Iulian Cazacut has vehemently denied any responsibility, saying his company, which sells meat products to around a dozen European countries, strictly adheres to EU standards and has always correctly labelled its products.
“We sold horsemeat… Someone along the way changed the labelling,” Cazacut told AFP during an interview at the Doly-Com facility.
The abattoir doesn’t even export minced meat, Cazacut added, so the answer to how the fraud could have happened should lay with meat processing firms further down the industry’s complex food supply chain.
As head of a company that had a turnover of 35 million euros ($47 million) last year and even plays music to relax the cattle in the nearby stables, Cazacut appeared incredulous at apparent efforts to “put the blame on Romania” for the scandal.
Given the obvious differences between beef and horsemeat, he said it was unlikely the food companies involved didn’t know they were handling horsemeat.
“How can it be that one major company that transforms thousands of tonnes of meat was not able to distinguish between horsemeat and beef?”
Cazacut has received support from Romanian authorities. Prime Minister Victor Ponta this week dismissed any wrongdoing by the two Romanian abattoirs fingered in the crisis and said his country “cannot accept to be the usual suspect” — but business has already been affected.
Founded 15 years ago, Doly-Com currently employs some 300 staff who work with state-of-the-art machines from Denmark and Germany, Cazacut said.
While a tour of the facility showed uniformed workers in blood-spattered aprons busily slicing up cow and pig carcasses, all orders for horsemeat from Doly-Com have been suspended since the crisis broke, Cazacut told AFP.
He added that he was hopeful they would be resumed in a week.
Horsemeat normally accounts for five percent of Doly-Com’s exports, or 80 tonnes a month, and is bought from horse owners in the local area.
“They are horses that can no longer be used for farmwork,” he said, adding that Doly-Com pays one euro ($1.3) per kilo of live horse.
Home to some 630,000 horses, Romania is a country where the animals are traditionally viewed as reliable working companions whose meat is rarely consumed by the population.
The country’s alleged role in the horsemeat scandal has come as a blow to Romanians who love their equestrian friends.
“Romanians love their horses just as much as the Brits, if not more”, Tiberiu Hermenean, head of the private horse breeders’ association Lipizzan said earlier this week.
The food scandal first broke in Britain last week when beef lasagne sold under the Findus brand was found to contain horsemeat.
The ready meals were produced by French firm Comigel, which said the meat came from French meat-processing company Spanghero.
Spanghero was then quick to point the finger at two Romanian abattoirs as the source of the meat.
Traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands were also reportedly involved in the supply chain.
With the paper-trail leading through several countries, investigators have yet to work out where the labels were switched.
For its part, Doly-Com said it was confident it could clear up any doubt about the type of meat it supplied to clients.
“We have asked all our clients to carry out DNA tests on the meat and we will publish the results,” said Cazacut, adding that Romania’s agriculture ministry had already checked the firm’s paperwork and found no wrongdoing.
“It’s a shock, like a tsunami that comes just after an earthquake,” Cazacut said about the effect of the scandal on his business.
“But in the long run I hope this affair will be an alarm call for the whole of Europe so that those who don’t respect the rules are punished,” he added.