Reaction as 66 people arrested in trading horsemeat unfit for human consumption

66 arrested in trading horsemeat unfit for consumption. Picture: Europol.

Spanish police and Europol have arrested 66 people who were operating an organized crime unit trading horsemeat in Europe that was unfit for human consumption.

A total of 65 people were arrested and charged in Spain, and the main suspect, a Dutch citizen, was arrested in Belgium, for trading horsemeat from animals ‘in bad shape, too old or not suitable for consumption'.

Animal abuse

The European police agency, charged the individuals with crimes including animal abuse, document forgery, perverting the course of justice, crimes against public health, money laundering and being part of a criminal organization.

"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 organization," said Europol in a statement.

Angela Druckman, Professor of Sustainable Consumption and Production, the University of Surrey, told FoodQualityNews, as food production becomes increasingly economically driven, short cuts to save money are increasing and such instances can be detrimental to human health and cause a lack of trust in the food supply chain. 

With food scares becoming more frequent, it is important that robust strategies are in place to prevent breaches in our food supply,” she said.

An essential precursor for developing such strategies is a robust, comprehensive categorization system for the different types of food scares that may arise.  

Our work with industry partners has allowed us to create a new categorization system which, unlike previous systems, enables food scares to be classified according to both its physical manifestation and the origins of the scare.”

Irish authorities detected beefburgers containing horsemeat in 2013 which then led to a series of investigations to find out the origin of the contamination; the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone was found in the meat.

Meat companies, frozen food companies and fast-food companies were affected by the investigation, which led to the identification of a Dutch citizen known in the horsemeat world, although his whereabouts were unknown at that moment.

Operation Gazel

In 2016, Guardia Civil’s Environmental Protection Service initiated Operation Gazel after unusual behavior was detected in horsemeat markets.

It detected a scam whereby horses in bad shape, too old or labelled as "not suitable for consumption" were being slaughtered in two different slaughterhouses.

The animals came from Portugal and several places in northern Spain, their meat was processed in a specific facility and from there sent to Belgium, one of the biggest horsemeat exporters in the European Union.

The criminal organization forged the animals’ identification by modifying their microchips and documentation.

During the investigation, Guardia Civil located the Dutch businessman related to the Irish case of the beefburgers containing horse meat, in Calpe, Alicante.

Investigators found the Spanish element of the organization was a small part of the whole European structure controlled by the Dutch suspect.

The arrest of the leader of the criminal group was carried out in Belgium. This action was coordinated by the Federal Police, the Federal Food Agency in Belgium and Guardia Civil.

Different police actions were simultaneously carried out in France, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK.

As a result of all of these actions, several bank accounts and properties were blocked or seized, and five luxury cars seized. 

During the searches at the slaughterhouses and facilities, several samples were taken. The results concluded that the destination of the horsemeat was mainly outside of Spain, because the samples in Spain matched those found abroad.

Michael Walker, a member of IFST’s Scientific Committee and expert to the Elliott Review. (Independent review of Britain’s food supply chain in the light of the horse meat incident in 2013) said Spanish authorities are to be applauded in exposing this food crime by spotting unusual behavior in horse meat markets and following it up with international coordination – ‘exactly what we recommended in the Elliott Review’.

No-one expected food crime to disappear after the horse meat scandal was exposed in 2013 but it’s shocking to see apparent evidence of such a widespread large conspiracy criminally to place illegally slaughtered horses into the human food chain,” he said.

There are clear food safety risks – including disease, veterinary drug residues, fraud and worrying animal welfare issues.

The FSA National Food Crime Unit and its Scottish counterpart will undoubtedly be involved and must remain vigilant – the last thing we need in the current climate is any repeat of 2013 undermining consumer trust in our food supply chain.”    

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