Irish racehorses 'are being turned into food for human consumption days after their last race,' shocking investigation claims

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  • Ex-racehorses are allegedly being mistreated at an abattoir in County Kildare
  • It is said they are then killed for horse meat, raising concerns about food safety 
  • The footage emerged in an documentary on Irish TV using hidden cameras

Irish racehorses are being beaten and mistreated, before being killed and turned into food for human consumption, it has been claimed in an expose documentary.

Graphic covert footage shows horses slipping over, collapsing and being hit with alkathene pipes in an abattoir in Straffan, County Kildare – which is at the heart of the country’s equine industry and is Ireland’s last remaining horse abattoir.

Video also seems to show a man putting new microchips in horses’ necks to change their ‘identity’, thought to be an effort to launder the identity of the animals and to ‘clean’ them up for human consumption in Europe.

Of the roughly 2,000 horses that were slaughtered at the site last year, two thirds of them were thoroughbreds and had been bred for the racing industry, the report said.

The video, taken on hidden cameras, was shown in an documentary entitled ‘Horses: making a killing’ on the the Irish broadcaster RTE on Wednesday night, and an investigation has since been launched by officials.

Irish racehorses are being beaten and mistreated, before being killed and turned into food for human consumption, it has been claimed in an expose documentary by RTE

Irish racehorses are being beaten and mistreated, before being killed and turned into food for human consumption, it has been claimed in an expose documentary by RTE

The documentary, with footage from an unlicensed barn on the site of the abattoir, looked into what happens when horses and ponies are no longer useful and too expensive to keep. It is understood that this barn is where the animals are held and screened in the days leading up to their slaughter. 

The documentary said that covert filming revealed the ‘routine abuse of animals’ and the ‘ill-treatment of dying horses’ in this abattoir, which sees them slaughtered for horse meat to be exported abroad.

France, where there are still butchers specialising in horse meat, imports 2,500 tons of a year. Of that, 400 tons of it comes from Ireland.

The TV programme claimed that, of the just under 2,000 horses that went through this abattoir, run by Shannonside Foods, between January 2023 and March this year, ‘the majority were thoroughbreds who have raced more than 3,000 between them’.

Investigators were able to confirm more than 400 of those bred for racing had racing careers, with some arriving at the abattoir from prestigious owners and trainers, and killed just days after their last race, said the Irish broadcaster.

The operation is believed to be part of an EU-wide smuggling and horse passport fraud scheme, and has raised concerns about food safety.

Horses not supposed to be going into the food chain were doing so by receiving ‘a new passport’, veterinary expert David Martin told the broadcaster. The practice was ‘putting human safety at risk’ and ‘compromising the food chain’, he added.

Traceability of some 20,000 Irish horses each year could be affected by the malpractice, said the television report.

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A 2022 law in the UK means that every racehorse must be signed out of the food chain with a stamp in its passport when it is first entered to run.

However, in the EU, horses are only stamped out if they received particular medications that would preclude them from entering the food chain. 

It is therefore illegal in Ireland for any racehorses treated with the painkiller Bute, which nearly all are given at some stage in their career, to enter the food chain.

The UK’s stricter rule is not reciprocated in Ireland and Irish-trained horses running in the UK are not signed out. 

Graphic covert footage shows horses slipping over, collapsing and being hit with alkathene pipes in an abattoir in Straffan, County Kildare (pictured) - which is at the heart of the country's equine industry and is Ireland's last remaining horse abattoir

Graphic covert footage shows horses slipping over, collapsing and being hit with alkathene pipes in an abattoir in Straffan, County Kildare (pictured) – which is at the heart of the country’s equine industry and is Ireland’s last remaining horse abattoir

Of the roughly 2,000 hoses that were slaughtered at the site last year, two thirds of them were thoroughbreds and bad been cred for the racing industry, the report said

Of the roughly 2,000 hoses that were slaughtered at the site last year, two thirds of them were thoroughbreds and bad been cred for the racing industry, the report said

If the only option for an ex-racehorse is to have it put down, then the BHA’s code of practice recommends it being done at home by a vet and then removed, often incinerated, which may incur a cost of around £500.

Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue said Thursday the scenes were ‘abhorrent and unacceptable’. ‘No stone will be left unturned in terms of making sure the full rigours of the law are applied here,’ McConalogue told RTE radio.

‘All available evidence of illegal activity… will be appropriately investigated,’ said a ministry statement. 

‘Horses are primarily bred for recreation as opposed to the food chain and we have very strict laws in place as well in relation to the management of that food chain,’ said McConalogue.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) have said they will assist investigations, including any launched by Garda or the Department of Agriculture, while the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and World Horse Welfare have reiterated their call for the Government to introduce a digital-only identity system for horses.

A statement from HRI said it was ‘deeply shocked and appalled’ by the content of the RTE Investigates documentary.

It added: ‘The criminal behaviour depicted in the documentary is disgusting and is not the experience of the vast majority of the 30,000 people who make their livelihood in the horse racing and breeding industry in Ireland.

‘HRI has zero tolerance for mistreatment of horses in any circumstances and criminal and regulatory sanction must be imposed on anyone found to have behaved in an illegal way towards horses.’

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The statement continued: ‘Equine safety and care is HRI’s top priority and this year HRI will invest €16.1million (£13.58million) in welfare and integrity services. 

‘The thoroughbred horse is enshrined in Irish and EU law. Significant legal and regulatory checks and balances are in place for thoroughbred horses from birth through their racing career and life cycle. 

‘HRI will review the issues in the RTE documentary and will actively support any Department of Agricultural or Garda investigation and urge anyone with information about the mistreatment of horses to report it.’

HRI added it did not have the data to confirm the programme’s figures.

Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said the Irish public were left ‘distressed and appalled’ by the footage.

‘This country has a great love for horses. I know those with special needs and autism and the comfort and support they get from horses. Many people refer to them as angels with hooves, and they demand respect and care,’ Mr Doherty told the Dail.

‘What was reported last night demands immediate action and it demands accountability, minister.’

Mr Doherty questioned how officials from the Department of Agriculture, who work on the site on days that horses are slaughtered, were not aware of the mistreatment.

‘It has been uncovered that approximately 2,000 horses were slaughtered at Shannonside Foods Ltd in Kildare last year alone, with two thirds of them bred for the horse racing industry,’ he added.

In Britain a similar investigation was carried out by Panorama called the ‘Dark side of Horse Racing’ in 2021.

It was after then that the BHA brought in the rule that means that every racehorse in the UK must be stamped out of the food chain.

The system is not 100% failsafe, because paper passports are not tamper-proof.

This is why thy many are calling for digital passports, which would make it harder to forge a horse’s identity.

 In 2023, 88 thoroughbreds went through British abattoirs based on records of passports returned to Weatherbys, although the BHA is awaiting further information from the Foods Standards Agency. 

Of those, 84 were from abroad (mainly Ireland) and of the four British thoroughbreds only one had raced in the last four years and that was prior to 2022.

Distressing footage appears to show the horses slipping over, collapsing and being beaten with pipes. The investigation also found that microchips were being put in horses' necks to change their 'identity', thought to be an effort to launder the identity of the animals and to 'clean' them up for human consumption in Europe.

Distressing footage appears to show the horses slipping over, collapsing and being beaten with pipes. The investigation also found that microchips were being put in horses’ necks to change their ‘identity’, thought to be an effort to launder the identity of the animals and to ‘clean’ them up for human consumption in Europe.

Horses are seen at the site in covert footage captured by the investigators

Horses are seen at the site in covert footage captured by the investigators

A horse is seen on the ground outside a stable having slipped over

A horse is seen on the ground outside a stable having slipped over

Last month, the Government passed the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Act which will, when it is introduced in the next Parliament, make the transport of live animals abroad for slaughter illegal which should make it harder for animals to pass through Britain on their way to the continent, which does currently happen.

Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, said: ‘What we witnessed [on Wednesday] was outrageous and proof that, well over a decade on, the dark underside of the horse meat scandal never truly ended. 

‘The documentary once again lifted the lid on the dark underside of the horse trade and the suffering it causes. 

‘These horses were let down in every way possible by an inherently flawed system and we hope that the disgust generated by the programme, alongside food safety concerns, will be channelled into practical action by EU and UK authorities.

‘We desperately need a robust equine digital identification system, accessible across the EU, EEA and Britain. There is no excuse for allowing this fraudulent trade to continue and we hope that authorities will recognise the damage it causes and put in the right measures to stop it. 

‘We also need the abhorrent and illegal practices that we endured during last night’s programme at the slaughterhouse to be stamped out immediately. Those involved need to be made to answer for their actions and face significant consequences.’

An aerial view shows the site of the abattoir in Straffan, County Kildare

An aerial view shows the site of the abattoir in Straffan, County Kildare

Horse meat is just a part of a far bigger problem according to Chris Elliott, a professor of food safety, who was interviewed for the programme. 

He explained: ‘There is more money in food fraud than the heroin trade worldwide.’

Shannonside Foods Ltd said any allegation of an equine being mistreated ‘will be fully investigated by the company’.

Ireland’s department of agriculture told RTE that that the barn in question was not part of the approved premises and that any evidence of illegal activity will be appropriately investigated.