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HORSE MEAT HORROR; INVESTIGATION SECRET SHAME.

Byline: JILLY BEATTIE

MORE than 1,000 old, sick and crippled horses are being illegally slaughtered or shipped out of Ireland every WEEK and sold to top restaurants in Italy and France.

The animals, many unwanted pets and others former racehorses, are unfit for human consumption and should never reach the food chain.

Most picked up by the criminal gangs are too weak to travel and some even drop dead in transport lorries during hellish journeys.

Animal investigators believe more than 70,000 horses have left Ireland in the past 18 months in a criminal enterprise that is raking in MILLIONS for the criminals involved.

A source said: "In less than two years these illegal dealers have made tens of millions exporting contaminated horse meat.

"More than 70,000 horses have left the island of Ireland and ended up on the dinner tables of Europe.

"Criminals pay between EUR6 and EUR20 for each horse and even in the worst deal they can do, they'll get between EUR250 and EUR625 depending on the weight.

That's a minimum of around EUR18.5million made in 18 months. But it could be as much as EUR45million.

"But none of these animals is fit for human consumption. They've all been stamped out which means they're not suitable to enter the human food chain.

"There's no return on these horses, they have no monetary value to legitimate people. Most of them have been medicated with phenylbutazone for pain and inflammation and their flesh is effectively toxic. This drug has been found to cause leukaemia in children.

"The horses are worthless except to these gangs. Some of them are even given away for free because their owners just cannot afford the feed and livery costs. Others are past their best as race horses or breeding mares.

"The gangs advertise on websites offering to collect unwanted horses.

"They're all dumped for some reason, perhaps they're too old, worn out or sick, or they've been under veterinary care and packed with drugs such as steroids, painkillers and antibiotics and they're costing their owners money."

The gangs use forged horse passports and fake microchips to evade detection. They spend weeks corralling the horses in holding pens, sheds and fields across Ireland while forging passports. The horses are injected with new microchips and each is given a new history.

The criminals are so confident of escaping detection they have started to use bizarre names for the horses they plan to slaughter. One uncovered recently was renamed "gonorrhea".

Complete with new identities, some of the horses are slaughtered in one of six abattoirs carrying out the illegal work. One of the slaughter houses is owned by a legitimate businessman and is licensed to slaughter one day a week but the thugs he has unwittingly rented it to are operating it up to seven times a week, normally throughout the night.

A source said: "It was even working for about 14 hours on Easter Monday, most of it through the night." The rest of the horses are shipped in lorries through Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England where they are slaughtered and their meat sold into mainland Europe. Others are transported over on a ferry to France where they are slaughtered and sold to the public.

A source told the Irish Daily Mirror: "These animals definitely should not be eaten but this meat leaving our country has become a staple source of horse in many top-end restaurants in Europe.

"The chefs and public know nothing about the history of the food they're eating. It's appalling for them and an awful end for these poor animals."

And as an increasing number of animals are abandoned, stolen or given away, the more criminal gangs have been able to prey on vulnerable or desperate owners who cannot afford even the most basic costs of owning a horse.

The gangs source the horses by various means including newspaper ads, trips to horse marts across the country where animals can fetch as little as EUR6.

Other horses are stolen from fields, including incidents in Offaly, Down and Armagh.

And more still are taken in an apparent goodwill gesture for "rehoming". Animal sanctuaries have learned to protect their horses from the risk of overnight thefts after a series of incidents across Ireland over a number of weeks.

Ireland's devalued horses are also being slaughtered here in illegal knackers' yards that pop up for business then suddenly close.

Investigators tracking the movement of horses witnessed large numbers of animals being corralled in one area before being shunted on to lorries.

Even single individuals are believed to be managing to shift up to 200 horses a month, making between EUR500 and EUR625 on each deal.

A source said: "Some of the abattoirs are perfectly legal and are being duped into taking illegal horses.

"Others are like pop-up abattoirs where these people take over abandoned businesses or rent them and work for a few weeks or months before moving on.

"Some of the horses are sold as meat on the hook. It's easier to get it moving than selling it on the hoof. And when the only costs the criminals are facing are for diesel for the trucks and transporters, then they are in a very profitable business.

"We know several groups of people who are earning as much as EUR19,000 a week if they are on target for the sales with their go-betweens.

"That equates to an illegal annual income of almost EUR100,000." The USPCA is continuing its battle to close down illegal horse-trading.

The charity's Stephen Philpott said: "The horse passport system is a shambles and is allowing criminals to get away with this despicable crime. Unsafe and contaminated meat is entering the food chain, criminals are making money and animals are suffering hugely.

"We lobbied for the horse passports but they were not introduced properly.

"We need one type of passport for horses and one authority looking after them. The criminals spotted a weakness in the system and they are exploiting it for millions of pounds.

"The USPCA believes passionately that all animals are entitled to a dignified life and a dignified death. In this case, this despicable practice they get neither. They have a miserable life and a miserable death."

A spokesman from the Department of Agriculture in the North, said: "DARD is concerned about this report. Penalties for offences in relation to the horse passport rules include fines and any evidence of infringement reported us will be investigated."

Irish Mirror Comment: Page 10

Do you know anything about illegal horse trading? Email j.beattie@mgn.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

HERDED Animals are taken away BRUTAL Sticks used to beat the horses TRANSPORT Horses going for slaughter in Co Offaly GRISLY Horse is butchered in abattoir STENCH Entrails are dumped in huge skip
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 16, 2012
Words:1137
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