European authorities have uncovered a network that sold potentially dangerous horse meat in at least four countries.

The operation was coordinated by Europol and the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil). A video can be seen here.

Operation Yucatán targeted the sale of horse meat unsuitable for consumption. The meat was sold on the Spanish, Belgian, German, and Italian markets.

In Spain, 35 people were detained and six companies were investigated. Spanish officials seized half a ton of horse meat from butcher shops as it posed a risk to public health. Earlier this year, it was revealed that six arrests had been made by Belgian Federal Police. Authorities did not report any related illnesses.

Traceability information for the animals was altered by modifying registration, transfer, and identification documents. The gang is accused of crimes including food fraud, money laundering, and document fraud.

Inspections by the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) and Animal Welfare Inspectorate in Belgium showed evidence of tampering with passports and microchips of animals.

Ongoing since 2019

A single illegal shipment could create up to €35,000 ($36,500) for the transporters, with an estimated turnover of €4.5 million ($4.7 million), said Europol.

Suspects had different functions from slaughtering the animals without the necessary controls, dealing with the transport, veterinarians providing false documents, and the butcher facilities, which sold the meat.

The accused acquired horses from across Spain for free or up to €100 ($104) per animal, which reached values close to €1,500 ($1,570) when sold. These horses were not meant for the food chain. A cattle exploitation site was set up in 2019 to export the meat to other European markets. The livestock farm restricted the entry and exit of horses.

Spanish officers raided the clandestine facilities in Valencia and found 80 horses, which had been abused and were suffering from various untreated diseases due to the lack of veterinary care. The farm was closed and horses were removed but one had to be put down.

Animals endured poor conditions in the cattle facilities, a lack of food and water, as well as stressful situations during transport, said authorities.  

The latest Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN) report also mentioned horse document fraud. During 2020 and 2021, several EU countries tried to combat the illegal introduction of horses into the food chain. Excluded animals no longer have any market value at the end of their life. Traffickers are falsifying the passports of these horses to reintroduce them into the food chain.

Previous editions of the annual Operation Opson, which is coordinated by Europol and Interpol, have included actions on horse passport documents and horse meat in countries like Belgium and Spain. Investigations led to meat and live animals being seized and court cases in several European countries.

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