Horse traders, veterinarians, merchants and meat industry professionals were among 18 people who went on trial in Marseille on Tuesday accused of running a vast European trafficking ring that led to the slaughter of hundreds of horses unfit for human consumption.
The case is the result of an investigation dating back to 2013 that revealed anomalies in the identification certificates of draft horses, blood horses, sport horses, race horses and even ponies who ended up in butcher shops in France.
The main defendants – from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain – are charged with "organised fraud" and "forgery and deception of goods that endanger human health”. They face up to 10 years in prison.
At the top of the pile is well-known Belgian horse trader Jean-Marc Decker, who prosecutors say set up an organised gang of illegal horsemeat traders that saw as many as 4,700 horses exported to slaughterhouses in the south of France between 2010 and 2013.
At least 150 animals were acquired from private individuals who were assured their horses would be sent to educational farms or centres for handicapped children, and used for trail riding or horse therapy.
After being taken from their owners, the old horses were allegedly exported to Belgium and issued with fraudulent Belgian, German or Dutch health certificates before being being sold on to French slaughterhouses.
Aline Oudin, from Meurthe-et-Moselle, testified that a recruiter duped her into handing over her 28-year-old horse with promises the animal would enjoy a happy retirement on a quiet farm.
“I was deeply hurt … this horse was part of the family,” Oudin said after learning her horse had been killed. “These dealers are bandits, but I blame the veterinarians who were a big part of the trafficking operation.”
Animals that have been infected with parasites or received certain medical treatments are considered to be unfit for human consumption.
Oudin’s horse, who was slaughtered in Alès, had been treated with insect repellent, deworming and anti-inflammatory treatments.
It was in Alès, a town in the Gard department, where authorities first got wind of the trafficking operation after a veterinary inspection of slaughterhouses found that several horses had false medical records and examination passports.
A wholesale company in Alès that supplied the meat on to as many as 80 butchers in the south of France is also being prosecuted for “indifference” in its alleged failures to respect sanitary protocols.
It’s understood the company, Equi'd Sud d'Alès, falsely believed the meat was of French origin.
Also among the accused is a Belgian veterinarian said to have facilitated the traffic ring by providing 154 blank documents to traders and backdating medication treatment sheets.
Two French veterinaries, meanwhile, are charged with complicity for allegedly turning a blind eye during controls at the slaughterhouses in Alès.
The case will be tried until 24 June, and will be followed by two other further court actions set for January and September 2023.