Stolen cattle are being processed in Republic, claims unionist leader
Calls for crackdown as 11,000 cattle disappear in North over three years
Factories south of the border are unknowingly accepting thousands of stolen cattle, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has claimed.
The allegation comes as farmers on both sides of the border have highlighted an alarming rise in the numbers of cattle being stolen from farms - and as Brexit negotiations focus the spotlight on the border.
Organised crime gangs are becoming increasingly involved with the theft of cattle across the North, according to Robin Swann MLA.
Figures obtained by Mr Swann from the Department of Agriculture (DAERA) in Northern Ireland show almost 11,000 cattle had been reported either as lost or stolen over the last three years.
The data shows that 3,838 cattle disappeared in 2018, up 1,000 on 2011-12 figures.
While Mr Swann acknowledged that cattle can disappear for a host of reasons - DAERA cite animals straying onto neighbouring holdings or dying without the keeper being aware, and administrative inaccuracies - he said no one believes 10,755 cattle have vanished in such non-suspicious fashion in three years.
"The reality is that a large number have been stolen. Rather than being simple opportunist thefts, I suspect a large number of these cattle are being stolen to order," said Mr Swann, following discussions with contacts in the PSNI.
"Once the cattle are stolen, their tags are usually quickly changed before they are later smuggled with fake documentation into factories in the Irish Republic," he said.
"Those that aren't sent across the border are most likely slaughtered in backyard processing facilities."
Mr Swann said it is time there was a concentrated effort to identify the factories in the Republic that might be unknowingly accepting these cattle. He also called for the illegal back-yard operations operating locally to tracked down and shut down.
"When it comes to food safety, these criminals deserve to have the book thrown at them," he said.
A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland said it is concerned by the reports.
"Meat from illegally slaughtered animals could contain harmful chemicals, parasites or diseases which is why people should only buy from sources they know and trust.
"We would advise the public not to eat any meat they suspect may have been processed illegally and to report it to their local authority who will take suitable enforcement action which we'll support," it said.
An Garda Siochana said there are ongoing joint cross-border investigations also involving the PSNI and Food Safety Authority and Department of Agriculture officials.
Supt. Brian Kee of the PSNI said statistics only tell part of the story.
"They do not account for the severe impact theft can have. We remain committed to driving down these figures further," he said.
Bord Bia said in the Republic the Department of Agriculture closely monitors the traceability of all animals being processed by Irish meat plants.
The Department said it is not aware of any evidence to suggest that stolen Northern Ireland cattle are being accepted for slaughter in this jurisdiction.
It said all cattle accepted for slaughter in meat factories in Ireland are subject to ante-mortem and post-mortem veterinary inspection and that detailed checks are carried out to check the identification of each animal accepted for slaughter.
Meat Industry Ireland did not respond when contacted for comment.
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