By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France found more cases of illegal horsemeat in beef products than any other European Union country, early results of DNA tests ordered in the wake of the scandal showed, with more than 1 in every 8 samples testing positive.
The European Commission is due to announce the full results of the tests later on Tuesday, but it said in a statement that for the EU as a whole, about 5 percent of all beef products tested had come back positive for horse DNA.
But EU sources said a Commission progress report dated April 9 showed that of 353 tests carried out in France, 47 tested positive for horse DNA, a rate of more than 13 percent.
"In terms of image it's not good. It risks delaying our attempt to regain consumer confidence to get out of the crisis, because it is not over yet," Jean-Rene Buisson, chairman of the French food industry group ANIA, told Reuters.
Buisson said it would be important in the final results to look at how much horsemeat was detected in each positive sample, as tiny traces could be the result of accidental contamination at processing plants rather than deliberate substitution.
Europe's horsemeat scandal has damaged confidence in parts of the continent's food industry, hitting sales of processed ready-meals and boosting demand for organic produce.
The progress report only included complete data for 11 EU countries. Greece had the second-highest level of positive results with 288 tests yielding 36 positive results, a rate of 12.5 percent. Germany found horse DNA in 29 samples out of 867.
In Britain, where horsemeat has already been found in burgers and other products sold by retailers including Tesco, 150 official tests carried out as part of the EU-funded program returned no positive results for horsemeat.
But one senior EU official said Britain had recorded the most positive results for the potentially harmful veterinary drug phenylbutazone - known as bute - as part of a second set of EU-wide tests on horsemeat destined for human consumption.
"The bute is now really concentrated in the UK, but mainly because the UK has tested every horse slaughtered since February, so they have done a huge number of tests - more than 800," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
For the EU as a whole, about 0.6 percent of slaughtered horses tested positive for bute, the Commission said, without providing further details.
EU food safety experts said on Monday the level of bute residues found in horsemeat was unlikely to pose a health risk.
"The opinion... is encouraging. It shows that it isn't worrying as such. You'd have to eat hundreds of horsemeat steaks for months before you encountered any problems with phenylbutazone," EU health spokesman Frederic Vincent told a regular news briefing.
Criminal investigations are under way in several EU countries to try to identify those responsible for passing off illegally labeled horsemeat as beef.
Last week, authorities in the Netherlands said about 50 million kilos of beef distributed by two Dutch wholesalers over a period of two years may have contained horsemeat, fuelling suspicions that the country could be one of the possible origins of the scandal.
"It's probably true that the Netherlands is the source of some of the fraud," the senior EU source said.
(Additional reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris; editing by James Jukwey)