'Burger-gate' has brought the slaughter of horses for human consumption sharply into focus both here in Ireland and in Britain, where there is no tradition of eating horsemeat. The finding of 29pc horsemeat in a burger produced by Silvercrest Foods for Tesco has horrified and alarmed millions of consumers, many of whom would have been unaware that horsemeat production is a thriving business both at home and on the Continent.
However, the burger fiasco is not the only scandal relating to horse slaughter to hit the headlines.
In the past week, Sky News aired the results of an undercover investigation into the slaughter of horses at a British plant. The documentary produced disturbing footage of horses being slaughtered contrary to the law and guidelines on equine welfare.
Footage from the Red Lion Abattoir near Nantwich in Cheshire showed multiple horses loaded into the slaughter pen, even though the British Welfare of Animals Act 1995 insists that horses should not be slaughtered in sight of one another because of the distress it may cause.
In another scene, a horse appeared to come round from the stun while being hung upside down before being bled.
The incidents were described by former British government chief veterinary officer, Keith Meldrum, as "appalling" welfare breaches.
The British Food Standards Agency has already revoked the licences of the slaughter men involved, which means that those individuals cannot work to slaughter animals again. The agency is also conducting further investigations with a view to prosecuting those people who breached the welfare rules.
While the Sky News investigation revealed serious violations of the welfare standards at the Red Lion plant, it has also resulted in some even more worrying developments.
Aside from the highly justified criticism of the welfare breaches, there has also been a growing number of people calling for the slaughter of horses in Britain to be banned. A snapshot of comments left by Sky News viewers reveals the opinion of many British consumers:
n"No matter what country slaughters horses, it is cruel and inhumane across the world. Close these hellholes down!"
n"Can't government do anything to shut these barbaric places down?"
n"Give tham (sic) the same laws as dogs and cats and stop the killing of these poor equus sp. dont (sic) forget the donkeys also who are killed for the Europeans over here."
n"I didn't realise horses were slaughtered in the UK, how can this be allowed to carry on? The sooner this and all slaughter houses are shut down the better."
n"All horse killing houses should be banned in the UK and the only people allowed to kill horses would be vets for medical purposes only. Why should we sanction businesses that go against the very essence of our culture and society."
n"I think it's awful enough that these animals are being slaughtered as they should be put out to pasture."
n"I think the destruction of horses in abattoirs should be banned!"
These comments show that Britain, and maybe even Ireland, could be heading for dangerous territoryc
A ban on equine slaughter in abattoirs will not result in an improvement in equine welfare. In fact, the complete opposite could happen.
Without a legal slaughter route for unwanted horses, there would undoubtedly be a rise in the number of neglected and abandoned horses and, most probably, an increase in the number of horses travelling long distances to Europe for slaughter.
The case has already been proven in the United States, where a 2007 ban on horse slaughter has had little or no effect on the number of American horses slaughtered.
Now, instead of being slaughtered in one of the 12 US abattoirs, the horses must travel thousands of miles in trucks before they are slaughtered in either Canada or Mexico. Injuries and death in the horses packed into these overcrowded trucks are not uncommon.
The number of animals processed in Canada alone doubled by the end of 2007, the year the slaughterhouses closed. The following year, the figures rose by a further 40pc. The number of US horses exported to Mexico tripled in 2008.
Prior to 2007, US abattoirs processed approximately 140,000 horses annually. However in 2011, four years after the ban, figures show that 138,000 were sent out of the US.
Dr Des Leadon, of the Irish Equine Centre and international director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, describes the US move to ban slaughter as "one of the most mistaken pieces of so-called welfare legislation ever introduced".
"The cessation of horse slaughter in America has actually created a documented horse welfare problem in over 100,000 horses," he says.
There have been hundreds of reports of horses being abandoned in rural areas in America since the ban on slaughter.
In many instances, the horses were left to starve to death slowly and painfully. Some had their identifying brands cut out of their skin so that the owners could not be located.
"Remember, these are horses that we have domesticated, stabled, fed and rugged for our own use," says Dr Leadon. "They have lost the ability to fend for themselves.
"We are lucky to have the number of plants that we have in Ireland," he adds. "They are a very important piece of infrastructure in the horse industry."
ISPCA chairperson Barbara Bent dismisses the notion that horse slaughtering should be shut down as "nonsense."
She is an advocate of maintaining Ireland's current system of abattoirs, which are policed by both Irish and European legislation.
"You would have to see an animal that has taken three months to die to appreciate the difference between that suffering and being humanely put down," she says.
The most up-to-date figures available from the Department of Agriculture show that over 23,385 horses were slaughtered in Ireland last year through five approved abattoirs.
The figure, which does not include December slaughterings at three of the five Irish plants, shows a five-fold increase compared to 2009, when around 4,200 horses were slaughtered.
Barbara Bent insists that these plants are crucially important to dealing with Ireland's unwanted horses.
"Where would all those horses have gone if we didn't have these facilities?" she asks.
Organisations like the ISPCA, the Irish Horse Welfare Trust and other charities have highlighted the growing problem of abandoned and neglecting horses in recent years.
As Ireland's economy fell into recession, the number of horses abandoned rose in tandem.
"We need an exit strategy for animals who have reached the end of their useful lives," says Ms Bent. Her comments echo a statement by international charity World Horse Welfare.
"While it may be a sad fact, there is a role for humane slaughter of horses to help prevent them from suffering long and painful deaths due to illness or neglect," the charity insisted.
"We believe there is a role for humane slaughter. We have identified 6,000 horses at risk in Britain and humane slaughter may eventually be the kindest option for them to save them from a lifetime of neglect and suffering."
"Homes for horses are in short supply," said Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare.
"We do not want to see horses exported overseas to slaughter where welfare standards may be even lower – that would be an even worse tragedy."