A Spanish-led police operation has broken up a network trading in horsemeat unfit for human consumption.
The Europol-backed crackdown – which was carried out in cooperation with law enforcement agencies in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland and the UK – resulted in the arrest of 65 people in Spain.
They were charged with a number of offences relating to the fraudulent sale of horsemeat, including forgery, animal abuse, perverting the course of justice and membership of an organised criminal group.
During raids on properties that led to the arrests, police seized a number of high-value items, including luxury cars, property and banks accounts containing large amounts of money.
Spanish environmental officials launched Operation Gazel after detecting unusual transactions on horse meat markets.
“They detected a scam whereby horses in bad shape, too old or simply labelled as ‘not suitable for consumption’ were being slaughtered in two different slaughterhouses,” Europol said in a statement.
“The criminal organisation forged the animals’ identification by modifying their microchips and documentation.”
While the majority of suspects were detained in Spain, a Dutch citizen said to be the ringleader of the network was held by police in Belgium.
He is thought to have been involved in the 2013 horsemeat scandal, during which huge quantities of food labelled as containing beef was found to be at least partly made up of horsemeat.
In some cases, products labelled as beef were found to be 100% horsemeat.
The Dutch suspect is believed to have run the network from the town of Calpe in Alicante, on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Tests on samples of meat taken during a series of raids on slaughterhouses and other facilities linked to the gang led investigators to believe the unfit meat was destined to be shipped to countries outside of Spain. The samples matched contaminated products tested abroad.
Horsemeat is considerably cheaper than other types of meat in many countries around Europe, meaning organised crime groups can cash in by selling it labelled as products that purport to contain beef.
Businessman Andronicos Sideras is alleged to have sold the contaminated meat to manufacturers that supply products to some of the UK’s largest supermarkets.
Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay told Inner London Crown Court: “This case, stripped to its essentials, is actually very straightforward.
“It is about lying to people and deceiving people to make money.
“Or, to be more precise, to make more money.
“Like most, if not all, offences of dishonesty, it was motivated by greed.”
The trial continues.