65 people arrested over substandard horsemeat scam

Europol has busted a Spain-based operation selling rotten horsemeat with falsified documents to say the meat was edible.

All told, 65 have been arrested for their part in the organised crime group that slaughtered and sold horses in Europe that were unfit for human consumption. The Dutch ringleader of the racket was arrested in Belgium.

Those arrested have been 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.

Reports suggest the racket was worth more than €20m.

The arrests follow the 2013 horsemeat scandal and specifically the detection of horsemeat in beef burgers in Ireland, which sparked an investigation into the origin of the contamination.

That investigation led to the identification of a Dutch citizen known in the horsemeat world but whose whereabouts could not be traced.

Then in the summer of 2016, unusual behaviour was detected in horsemeat markets and Spain's Guardia Civil's Environmental Protection Service initiated Operation Gazel.

They detected a scam whereby horses in "bad shape, too old or simply labelled as 'not suitable for consumption'", including diseased and injured horses, were being slaughtered in two different slaughterhouses. The horses, which were sourced from Portugal and places in northern Spain, had their meat further processed in a specific facility and then sent to Belgium, which is one of the biggest horsemeat exporters in the EU.

The criminal organisation forged the animals' identification by modifying their microchips and documentation, claiming the horsemeat was edible.

Analysis of the horsemeat concluded that it was destined for markets outside Spain based on the fact the samples matched other horsemeat products abroad.

In Europe, Italy and France are the biggest consumers of horsemeat, with Belgium the chief exporter, a 2013 report by the Guardian claims.

During the course of the investigation, the Dutch businessman was located in Alicante, Spain, from where he led the Europe-wide criminal operation.

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

Besides Spain and Belgium, the Europol-co-ordinated investigation also involved police actions in France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland and the UK. Actions included the blocking and seizure of several bank accounts and properties, as well as the seizure of five luxury cars.

The 2013 horsemeat scandal shocked Europe when Irish authorities found that 10 out of 27 beef burger products contained horse DNA, with some of the mislabelled burger products containing up to 29 per cent horsemeat. Analysis of frozen products, including ready meals, found some contained up to 60 per cent horse.

Meanwhile, a trial in the UK is ongoing over a 2012 scam allegedly mixing beef with cheaper horsemeat, which was sold with false labels passing it off as 100 per cent beef.

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