Authorities in Belgium have seized 16.8 tonnes of horse meat following a French probe that allegedly involved fraudulent paperwork involving horses sold to abattoirs.
The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) confirmed the seizure of meat from a Belgian company in a statement on Friday.
It said it acted after receiving information from French authorities, which have been carrying out an inquiry into alleged identification fraud involving horses, some of which had been used by a pharmaceutical company.
French authorities conducted a probe to identify fraud allegedly committed in the first quarter of 2013, said to have involved falsified equine passports.
The horses are said to have come from equestrian centers and a pharmaceutical company, where they were used for the production of anti-serums.
France informed Belgian authorities on December 23 that 17.5 tonnes of meat that formed part of the investigation had been delivered to a Belgian firm.
FASFC said it sent investigators immediately and seized frozen meat it said had been integrated into a larger lot of 82 tonnes of horse meat, most of which had already been distributed across Europe for sale.
In all, 16.8 tonnes of meat were seized. The rest of the meat had gone out for sale.
The FASFC said authorities in the countries concerned had been informed.
The agency confirmed that, between February and March this year, 1.6 tonnes of this lot was sold as fresh meat in Belgium.
“This fraud shows that problems exist in several European countries, with the identification of horses,” the agency said.
It said it had raised the issue with the European Commission, but there was still no concrete action as yet to harmonize systems across the European Union.
In mid-December, French police made 21 arrests across the country in an operation, launched following a tip-off that hundreds of horses from various sources had entered the food chain after having their veterinary papers falsified.
More than 100 police officers were involved.
The drug company, Sanofi, said it was co-operating with authorities. The firm was not accused of any wrongdoing.
It said it had sold about 200 horses over the past three years, either to veterinary colleges, individuals or horse centres.
It said all the horses were microchipped and were accompanied by all the correct paperwork, specifying that the animals were not to be introduced to the food chain.
It stressed that the certification that they not enter the food chain was precautionary and it did not believe there was a risk to human health.
The horses had been used to generate antibodies against tetanus and rabies. The antibodies are crucial to the manufacture of anti-rabies and anti-tetanus serums.
It is understood the blood is periodically taken from the horses for the extraction of the antibodies.
None of the horses had been used in drug testing, the company stressed.
Police sources told French media outlets that no evidence existed of a risk to human health, but the horses should never have been processed for human consumption.
Food Minister Guillaume Garot reiterated that view. “At this stage there is nothing to indicate any health problem,” he said.
The police raids were centered on the south of France and included several abattoirs, including one in Spain.
Those arrested included several meat dealers.
Several outlets reported that hundreds of horses were sold as food between 2010 and 2012 after a meat wholesaler in the Narbonne region allegedly faked papers.
The arrests follow a Europe-wide scandal earlier in the year, after authorities found that a range of processed beef products had been adulterated with horse meat.
The discovery led to the recall of tens of millions of processed beef meals from supermarket freezers across Europe.
National regulators stressed that the case was not a consumer health issue, but one of incorrect food labelling.
The scandal knocked consumer confidence, and revealed the complexities of the international food chain. It also highlighted the vulnerability of the system to rogue meat traders, whose raw ingredients found their way into the products of several big-name manufacturers.