The widening horse meat scandal has triggered a wave of legal action across the EU, as companies implicated in the issue declare they have been defrauded and vow to take legal action against their suppliers.

Three Findus subsidiaries – in the UK, France and Sweden – announced potential lawsuits against suppliers over the weekend, with some of these suppliers, in turn, also announcing their own lawsuits.

The rush to the courts comes after the discovery of horse meat in some Findus ready meals supplied by French manufacturer Comigel, which has prompted withdrawals and delistings of Findus and Comigel-made products across a number of European countries, and thrown the spotlight on a complicated, pan-European network of suppliers, sub-suppliers and traders.

On Saturday (9 February), Findus UK – which withdrew its beef lasagne last week – said it was considering legal action after an internal investigation suggested the adulteration of the lasagne with horse was “not accidental”. “Findus is taking legal advice about the grounds for pursuing a case against its suppliers, regarding what they believe is their suppliers’ failure to meet contractual obligations about product integrity,” the company said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Findus France declared on Saturday it would file a legal complaint against “persons unknown” in a French court on Monday (11 February). “We were deceived,” Findus France said. “There are two victims in this affair – Findus and the consumer.”

Findus France withdrew three ready meals – lasagne Bolognese, shepherd’s pie and moussaka – in the wake of the British lasagne revelations. The company was hit with further withdrawals on Sunday, when several French supermarket chains announced they were pulling Findus products, and those made by Comigel, as a precaution, amid concerns their meat content may have been labelled incorrectly.

In Sweden, Findus Nordic announced on Sunday it had started legal proceedings against Comigel and the suppliers it used. It comes as the Swedish National Food Agency said it was considering reporting Findus to the police over the undeclared horse meat in its products. This was routine procedure in food mislabelling cases, the agency said.

Suppliers suing suppliers

The ready meals were produced for Findus by French manufacturer Comigel at its Tavola subsidiary in Luxembourg. The meat was supplied to Tavola by French company Spanghero, which in turn sourced it from a supplier in Romania, via traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands.

On Sunday, Comigel president Erick Lehagre was quoted by French news agency AFP as saying his company had been duped and would be seeking redress for the damage it had suffered. Action would be taken in the coming days, he added. Lehagre also said it was clear to him that the problem lay not with Comigel or Findus but suppliers further down the chain, and claimed Comigel had been under the impression Spanghero only supplied beef products.

For its part, Spanghero said in a statement on Saturday that it had never dealt in any horse products, and that the product it supplied to Tavola had been received from Romania labelled as beef. It added it would be taking legal action against its – as yet unnamed – Romanian supplier.

Authorities in Romania have started their own investigation into the scandal to determine whether horse meat was fraudulently passed off as beef in one of its slaughterhouses before being supplied to France. However, Romania has been quick to cast doubts over suggestions of fraud, with Sorin Minea, head of food industry federation Romalimenta, telling Romanian press it would have been obvious to the importer that the meat was horse and not beef because horse had a different taste, colour and texture.

Meanwhile, the Romanian National Sanitary Veterinary and Food Safety Authority has stressed there are numerous checks and controls in place in the country’s abattoirs, and there was therefore no chance horse could have been fraudulently mislabelled there.

The complexity of the Findus ready meal supply chain mirrors that unveiled by the earlier scandal involving adulterated frozen beef burgers, which also involved numerous suppliers and sub-suppliers across different countries.

Although the Irish government announced at the end of January that its tests had shown conclusively that the raw material responsible for the adulterated burgers came from Poland, this has been challenged by Polish authorities, and the culprit behind the burgers has not to date been named.