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Horsemeat Crisis To Widen, Findus Backer Says

(c) Sky News 2013

The management of Findus UK has been slow to react to the scandal over contaminated ready-meals and has dealt incompetently with the public relations aspects of the crisis, according to one of the company's main shareholders.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Lyndon Lea, a partner at the private equity firm Lion Capital, complained that he had learned of the contamination of Findus beef lasagne with horsemeat three days after the products had been withdrawn from supermarket shelves.

"We were notified by the chairman of the company as a shareholder on Wednesday February 6 and the information passed was that there was a labelling issue on some Findus beef products," he said.

"Later that afternoon it was disclosed that the labelling issue was in fact horsemeat. I found out the following day."

Mr Lea, a prominent investor in British companies and a former owner of Wagamama, the restaurant chain, and Weetabix, the breakfast cereal, questioned Findus's approach to the crisis.

"Within hours [of finding out] I sent an email to the chairman stating that Findus needed to step forward and accept responsibility, apologise to the consumer, restore trust in the brand and be very visible in managing this crisis," he said.

"Findus took advice from its public relations adviser, Burson Marsteller, who gave exactly the opposite advice and felt that this was an industry issue and not a Findus issue."

Lion Capital acquired Findus in 2008 in a deal worth £1.1bn but ceded control of the business as part of a financial restructuring last year.

JP Morgan, the Wall Street bank, and Highbridge, a hedge fund manager it controls, now own two-thirds of Findus between them.

Mr Lea, who does not sit on the Findus board, said the company had managed the technical elements of the horsemeat issue capably but said the chairman, Dale Morrison, had compounded the crisis by not handling the reputational aspects in the same way.

Although Lion now owns only one-third of Findus' shares, Mr Lea ruled out a fire-sale of his firm's stake.

"I am enormously frustrated, yes. In any Lion (Other OTC: LIOPF - news) -controlled investment we would not have handled the PR in the manner it has been handled by Findus," he said.

"We believe in the investment, we believe it is a good business, and we wouldn't look to any quick sale of our stake. It does, though, give me pause for thought about ever putting myself in a minority [investment] position again."

The Lion Capital partner said he suspected that "criminal activity" was behind the horsemeat scandal and denied that cost-cutting related to the financial restructuring of Findus was to blame.

"I don't think that's the case at all. If that were the case then what we’re seeing more broadly in the food chain we would not be seeing," he said.

"Clearly, Tesco (Other OTC: TSCDY - news) is not a private equity-owned company, and they're also having the same issues. Where there is intent and criminal activity, it is very hard to legislate for that."

And Mr Lea insisted that he would be comfortable with members of his family eating Findus beef-based ready-meals.

"Absolutely, I think it's very important to draw a distinction here. There have been no food safety or health issues reported with the consumption of horsemeat," he said.

"It's not something I or many people in the UK would choose to consume but there are no health issues with it, so on that basis, yes."

Mr Lea, who rarely gives interviews, also said Lion had launched its own probe into the issue but cautioned that this was at an early stage.

"Comigel supplied to Findus product that was contaminated. Logic would say that liability resides with Comigel," he said.

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