Gardaí probe if unfit horsemeat processed here for export

Ongoing probe: Agriculture Minister Michael Creed’s department was part of the operation that searched seven sites yesterday
Ongoing probe: Agriculture Minister Michael Creed’s department was part of the operation that searched seven sites yesterday

Margaret Donnelly and Robin Schiller

Gardaí are investigating if horsemeat unfit for human consumption was processed here before being exported to continental markets in an organised and sophisticated fraud operation.

While it's understood that the meat did not end up in the food chain here, it could be months before this is confirmed by authorities.

Detectives from several national Garda units carried out searches as part of a major probe into horsemeat fraud.

Yesterday morning seven premises were searched across five counties as part of the investigation, which has been ongoing for almost two years.

Farms, private homes and commercial premises were searched as part of the operation.

It relates to the possibility horses that were slaughtered, and should have been destroyed, may have ended up being processed for export for human consumption.

It is not believed the "unfit" horsemeat has been sold on the Irish market, but it is feared it has been distributed to continental Europe where it is commonly consumed.

The investigation, led by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI), has been ongoing since around 2017.

The operation is not believed to be orchestrated by a criminal gang, although the alleged fraud has been described as "well-organised".

Gardaí suspect that false passports and microchips were being supplied for horses that have been deemed unfit to be slaughtered for food.

The fraudulent documents then purport to show that the animals have been certified for slaughter, before they illegally enter the food chain.

Gardaí searched seven sites in Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo, Westmeath and Kilkenny yesterday, along with officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

No arrests were made as the investigation is in its "evidence-gathering" stage.

The searches were led by the NBCI, which was supported by the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, and Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau.

According to the Department of Agriculture, it said all slaughterhouses whose meat is destined for human consumption must meet the detailed requirements set out in the EU food safety regulations. It also said no horse can be slaughtered unless there is a record of it on the department's equine database and all horses at slaughter plants undergo anti-mortem examination to ensure that they are fit for slaughter.

It follows on from a major crackdown on illegal horsemeat tried by Europol in 2017.

The Spanish police, in co- ordination with Europol, dismantled an organised crime group that was trading horsemeat in Europe that was unfit for human consumption.

In Spain, 65 people were arrested and charged with crimes such as animal abuse, document forgery, perverting the course of justice, crimes against public health, money laundering and being part of a criminal organisation.

Irish Independent