Tesco removes burgers from its shelves after one of its burger brands was found to contain 29 per cent horse meat in an investigation by a food safety watchdog.

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Burgers on sale at two UK supermarkets and three Irish supermarkets were found to contain traces of horse meat: a total of 27 supermarket beef products were tested, with ten of them containing horse DNA and the vast majority, 23, containing pig DNA.

Tesco and Iceland in the UK, and Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores in Ireland, have all told food safety chiefs they are removing all implicated products from their shelves.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland found the traces of horse, and in some cases pig DNA in a number of beef burger, beef ready-meals and salami products available from some of the UK and Ireland's busiest supermarkets.

The contaminated products were produced by two processing plants in Ireland - Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods - and the North Yorkshire based Dalepak Hambleton plant in the UK.

There is no clear explanation at this time for the presence of horse DNA in products emanating from meat plants that do not use horse meat in their production process. Professor Alan Reilly, FSAI

In one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horse meat accounted for approximately 29 per cent relative to the beef content. But in nine of the ten beef burger samples from these retailers, horse DNA was found at very low levels.

Some 31 beef meal products such as cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne were also tested, with 21 found to be positive for pig DNA. All tested negative for horse meat.

The DNA tests found horse in the following products:
Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers
Tesco Beef Quarter Pounders
Oakhurst Beef Burgers in Aldi
Moordale Quarter Pounders in Lidl
Dunnes Stores' Flamehouse Chargrilled Quarter Pounders
Two varieties of Iceland Quarter Pounders

Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the FSAI, said there was no health risk but also no reasonable explanation for horse meat to be found.

"The products we have identified as containing horse DNA and/or pig DNA do not pose any food safety risk and consumers should not be worried," he said.

"Whilst there is a plausible explanation for the presence of pig DNA in these products due to the fact that meat from different animals is processed in the same meat plants, there is no clear explanation at this time for the presence of horse DNA in products emanating from meat plants that do not use horse meat in their production process.

"In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horse meat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger."

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It is not the first time horse meat has been found in meat products sold in Britain: ten years ago investigators discovered that one in nine salamis which originated from the continent contained undeclared horse or donkey meat.

The Food Standards Agency said it had been in contact with the retailers and producers named in the current investigation and has called a meeting with food industry representatives later today, to establish the extent of the problem and how the contamination might have happened.

But it has already affected Tesco's share price, at a time when it was trying to turn around its fortunes after a slide in market share. At one point three hundred million pounds had been wiped off its value.

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Tim Smith, group technical director at Tesco, went on camera to apologise to customers and added: "We immediately withdrew from sale all products from the supplier in question. We are working with the authorities in Ireland and the UK, and with the supplier concerned, to urgently understand how this has happened and how to ensure it does not happen again.

"We will not take any products from this site until the conclusion and satisfactory resolution of an investigation."

Tesco's own food manufacturing standards which cover its international business insist that "All meat and meat ingredients must be sourced from Tesco Approved Agricultural Supplier List", while it also has a strict auditing system in place to ensure suppliers meet safety and hygiene standards.

In a statement, Lidl said it had taken the decision to remove all implicated products from sale pending a full investigation. "A refund will be provided to customers who wish to return affected products," said a spokesman.

The Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney said he had sent vets to interview managers at the Irish meat plant involved, in an effort to find out where the horse meat had come from. "The factory concerned does not slaughter horses and does not import horse meat", he said.

Lord Curry of Kirkhale, former chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, said robust systems were supposed to be in place, "to guarantee that what is in our packages when we purchase them in the supermarket is actually what it says on the tin. It's very disappointing that the systems have broken down in this instance."

As a result of an in-depth investigation by Irish journalist John Mooney into the trade in illegal horsemeat, the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said they had disovered lorryloads of horses being taken to abbatoirs in the middle of the night.

According to USPCA's Stephen Philpott, speaking last year: "Hundreds of unwanted horses are being rounded up and sold into the food chain using false paperwork."

Today Mr Mooney was asking whether the horsemeat discovered in the current scandal was fit for human consumption, and whether false paperwork had been used.

Regulation 15 of the Food Safety Act 1990 makes it an offence to label a food falsely, or in a way likely to mislead a purchaser. But it is worth noting that anything desribed as a 'value' beefburger only has to contain a minimum of 47 per cent beef.

The nutritional information on packets of Tesco Everyday Value burgers states that they contain 63 per cent beef, along with flour, beef fatr, soya protein and various seasonings.