Warning Europol’s investigation into forged passports only unveils ‘the tip of the iceberg’ *H&H Plus*

  • World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers has warned that trafficking of horses with forged documents is only “the tip of the iceberg”, with the activity also linked to other illicit trades. H&H finds out more...

    A Europol investigation that found competition horses with forged passports are making their way into the food chain has only uncovered “the tip of the iceberg”.

    The six-month Opson IX operation, targeting slaughterhouses in Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, found some 20% of foreign horse passports showed signs of forgery. The investigation led to both live horses and more than 17 tonnes of horsemeat being seized.

    World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers told H&H the findings came as “no surprise”, as there is a “huge” black market in forged equine passports.

    “We have seen empty lorries returning to the UK from Europe with horse passports and cash on board – it’s no great leap to imagine those passports making the journey multiple times with different horses,” he said.

    “A slack equine identification system allows horses to be traded like commodities in a murky underground world. Many of these horses will be retired sports and pleasure horses at the end of their careers, but there is little doubt some will be stolen animals.”

    The majority of competition, leisure and racehorse owners sign their horses out of the food chain to allow vets to administer a full range of drug treatments, as horses destined for slaughter cannot be treated with common medications such as phenylbutazone (bute). It is demand for horsemeat in Europe, combined with the “chronic shortage” of meat declared safe for consumption, that is thought to drive this illegal trade.

    But Mr Owers said the trafficking of horses with forged documents is only “the tip of the iceberg”, with the activity also linked to other illicit trades. Lorries with livestock are less likely to be searched as rules discourage their being held at border crossings, meaning criminals can take advantage – there is anecdotal evidence that horse urine masks the smell of narcotics against sniffer dogs, he added.

    The Opson IX operation, a follow-on from previous efforts to target the trafficking of counterfeit and sub- standard food and drink, was co-ordinated between Europol’s intellectual property crime coordinated coalition and Interpol.

    Despite interruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, enforcement authorities from participating countries were able to go ahead with checks of documents from more than 157,000 horses from eight countries, as well as inspecting around 117 tonnes of horsemeat.

    Europol executive director Catherine De Bolle said: “In times of crisis, criminals always look for new ways to abuse consumers and increase their illegal profit to the harm of public safety.

    “Counterfeit and substandard food is not only deceitful to consumers but can also pose a significant threat to their health.”

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