Time will tell whether prosecutions will follow

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Whether it is organised, paramilitary or just professional criminals crime has been part of the agricultural scene for a long time.

This goes back to the smuggling days, which were given an added twist in the days of the old EEC paying money (MCAs or monetary compensatory amounts) to equal currency differences north and south of the border; there have been examples of local involvement in a counterfeit scam involving well known animal drugs, and of course farmers are victims of crime when machinery is stolen, often for export by well organised gangs. Now it seems that the horse meat scandal of 2013, which first emerged in Ireland, may be linked to organised crime gangs in northern Europe.

It is hard to believe that it is over two years since the horse meat scandal. One welcome result was a new enthusiasm amongst some of the major UK retailers to rebuild shattered consumer confidence in their brand by selling quality assured British meat. This was a big boost for the industry, and not only for beef. But the price war between supermarkets, along with the steadily weakening euro, have led to that commitment slipping away. Supermarkets are now confident that most consumers have forgotten about the horse meat scandal. Indeed it would probably have been forgotten completely if it were not for reports this week suggesting that it involved organised crime, may still be happening and indeed may have been around before horse meat in burgers was detected by Irish authorities in early 2013.

What emerged this week was confirmation that a major investigation is still under way across the EU, coordinated by a European Commission body that is largely unknown. More than twenty arrests and the seizure of documents and computers, along with horse passports, underlined that cooperation between European police forces and the Commission’s judicial cooperation unit, Eurojust, is working well. The latest investigations involved police in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the UK. To date the only convictions linked to the horse meat crisis have been in the UK and Netherlands, where a meat trader was sentenced to a two and a half year prison term.

Reading between the lines there appear to have been two sources of horse meat. One seems to have been from eastern Europe and Romania, and looks to have been more an opportunist than organised crime. However Belgium seems to have been the centre of the 2013 scandal and this is no surprise, given its past record. Back in the 1990s Belgium was the centre of many reports about illegal growth promoters used in beef production. This was allegedly linked to organised crime, confirmed when a veterinary surgeon and meat inspector, who spoke out against these activities, was gunned down at his front door in 1995. The killers were never prosecuted, but the assumption has always been that this was a Mafia hit, because he had threatened to expose those behind the sale and distribution of illegal growth promoters.

Those involved in the horse meat investigation believe organised crime organisations drove the biggest food adulteration scandal in Europe since the growth promoter days of the 1990s. Time will tell whether seizures and arrests can be turned into successful prosecutions, but some interesting facts have emerged about an investigation of which Eurojust is rightly proud. One is that investigations were underway in Belgium at least three months before horse meat was detected by authorities in Ireland. This is alleged to have involved a Belgian now deemed a prime suspect. This suggests the detection of adulterated meat going into burgers in Irish processing plants, by the Food Safety Authority in Dublin, may not have been as random as it appeared when the news broke. It seems likely that there was a level of cooperation between European authorities before the first public evidence of product contamination emerged – in short the Irish FSA knew what it was looking for when it checked some products.

There is clearly a lot more to come out in the horse meat scandal. The key questions now are how successful the investigation will ultimately be, and the signs are good. The bigger question is whether it could happen again – and given the alleged involvement of organised crime that does seem possible. That has to intensify the pressure on Brussels to change its position that there is no need, on grounds of cost, to extend country of origin labelling rules to processed food.