Ireland is known as a nation of horse lovers. They like to hunt on them, race on them and punt on them. They generally don’t like to dine on them. So they’ve been horrified by recent revelations that many of the frozen foods sold in their supermarkets as beef also contain substantial amounts of horsemeat. But that’s not all, as Eric Campbell discovers.
When Ireland’s Food Standards Authority announced that it had found beef products sold by popular food brands contaminated with horsemeat, it was the start of a scandal that spread around Europe and to parts of Asia.
“We found with one product that about one third horse DNA in it which was just, you know an incredible finding. And we double checked and we triple checked because we understood that if we were to go out public with such a story, it was going to have quite an effect.” Alan Reilly, CEO, Food Standards Authority
Many Europeans are happy to eat horse, and in some countries it’s considered a bit of delicacy, but consumers in the UK and Ireland were upset and angry.
What many didn’t realise, though, is where a lot of the horsemeat was coming from, and why.
“Nobody cared and that’s the bottom line in this whole story, nobody cared. Nobody bothered asking the question, where are all the Irish horses going?” Stephen Philpott, Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
One man, animal rights activist Stephen Philpott knew the answer, because for the previous couple of years he’d been running a surveillance operation on gangs smuggling thousands of unwanted Irish horses across the border for illegal slaughter.
He’s uncovered a criminal conspiracy that’s netted millions, and seriously undermined consumer confidence in processed food.
Tragically, the abandoned horses are an unexpected and little reported consequence of the global financial crisis. As Campbell finds, when Ireland’s economy was booming and the housing bubble was at its biggest, every Irish builder bought a horse and joined a racing syndicate.
When the bubble burst, the animals were the first thing to go – dumped and left to fend for themselves in parks, fields and by the side of the road.
It wasn’t long before criminal gangs got in on the action. One whistleblower who is now in fear of his life tells Campbell horses too weak to travel were routinely drugged to make sure they arrived at the abattoir still alive – where they were then killed and their meat illegally entered the food chain.
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