The news that beef burgers and ready-made lasagne contain horsemeat has rightly caused alarm. Whatever the health implications - officials are only now beginning to admit there may indeed be a risk - consumers clearly have a right to know what's in their food.
But we should perhaps be grateful that the scandal has, indirectly at least, shone a light on a murky, cross border trade in live horses that is as complex as it is secretive. Unknown to most, as many as 65,000 live horses are trucked around Europe each year to feed demand for a meat which is regarded as a delicacy in many continental countries.
Conditions are frequently criticised by campaigners. They say many horses endure journeys of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles and lasting several days, often without adequate food, water or rest, leading to injuries and exhaustion. Despite regulations stipulating minimum standards, activists say breaches are commonplace and enforcement unacceptably weak.
They also claim that live transport increases the risk of spreading equine diseases - investigations have revealed that over 90% of horses found in one shipment showed signs of disease.
Many of the horses originate in Eastern Europe or Spain. Most are trucked down to southern Italy, a major hub for the horsemeat trade, where they face slaughter. The meat is then sold direct to the public, or to restaurants, or onto processing companies which in turn make meat products eventually sold elsewhere.
In theory, it's quite possible meat from southern Italy has found its way into beef burgers or ready meals or other items, as well as into legitimate horsemeat products. Research has found that even where horsemeat is sold perfectly legally, inadequate labelling makes it impossible for consumers to know the origin of the meat.)
The Spanish connection
In Spain, much of the horse trail begins in the mountainous region of Catalunya. Initially, at least, the animals have a comfortable life tended by stockmen who have bred horses for generations. I met with a number of such farmers whilst previously investigating the European horse trade with Ecostorm in 2007 and 2008.
They explained how horse breeding was important for the local economy, with farmers actively encouraged to raise horses by the authorities, and offered subsidies. Production and welfare standards were high, the farmers told me, and I saw for myself - this was about as free range as you could get, with the horses allowed to roam free for much of the year.
If they could, the horse breeders would sell their animals to local slaughterhouses, they said, but none had the required facilities for processing and exporting chilled meat. This meant they had no choice but to sell their animals for export - almost exclusively to Italy.
This is where the idyllic existence ends. The 'Breton' horses were rounded up periodically, either for direct transport to Italy or - more usually - to be taken to specialist fattening facilities. Here the atmosphere changed dramatically - wedged in on a large tract of rough ground moments from a major road, more than 200 horses were housed on the fattening farm I visited near Barcelona.
Surrounded on all sides by high fencing, the gate prominently featuring no entry signs, unexpected visitors were clearly not welcome here. Myself and colleagues had only secured access after negotiating with a middleman - a horse buyer introduced by farmers.
The owner was suspicious and less willing to talk than those further up the supply chain. We learnt however that he typically held up to 400 horses at both this and other farms in the region.
In the course of the year, he told us, he'd buy up to 4000 animals all destined for export, making him one of the biggest horse dealers in this part of the world, if not Europe. They'd eventually be crammed onto trucks for the long journey down to Italy. But separate haulage companies took care of that, he said - often the same companies that ship veal, pigs or other livestock from farm to slaughterhouse.
But he didn't concern himself with that part of the chain: the dealer was all too aware that the horse trade was coming under scrutiny from activists, and wouldn't permit filming at the fattening farm. Neither would he facilitate any sort of access to the transportation companies.
In Bulgaria, another (smaller) player in the European horse trade, I found a similar story. In common with Romania and Poland, the trade here involved, at least in part, some highly murky companies and individuals (including, I was later told, criminal elements). At one major horse farm known to supply the Italian horsemeat market, staff were reluctant to speak in any detail about their role in the trade. This wasn't the sort of place people drop in unannounced, let alone ask to look around.
They perhaps had good reason to be wary. The conditions for horses (and donkeys) held here were miserable. Inside a number of vast barns - home to dozens, if not hundreds, of animals - many horses were tethered to the wall or floor by both rope and chains; some had little, if any, straw or other bedding. Outside, a horse corpse lay sprawled in the courtyard, a large pool of blood soaking into the ground nearby.
Such scenes are unfortunately typical in the European horse trade - as indeed in most modern farming sectors - but internationally, things are much worse. In Mexico, undercover filming by investigative agency Ecostorm revealed how horses trucked from America experienced horrendous treatment. This included being subjected to a primitive slaughter technique that sees a knife plunged into the back of the head whilst a horse is still fully conscious. (Such techniques were found to be used at slaughter facilities supplying meat to European companies.)
But here's the rub; however unpleasant the horse meat industry may be, it represents just a tiny part of a much larger, global trade in livestock which sees millions of live cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and other species traded across the world each year. And conditions on farms, in markets, at slaughterhouses and during the transport of these animals are just as bad - if not worse - than those endured by horses. The current scandal has at least shone a light on part of this disturbing business. Lets hope it can help shine a light on the rest.
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