MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) — Police arrested 21 people in raids on the horse meat industry across southern France in mid-December on suspicion that horses used to develop medicines were sold fraudulently for food.
Marseille public prosecutor Brice Robin said 200 horses unfit for human consumption had been given false veterinary certificates and slaughtered for meat by an organized ring involving cattle traders, veterinarians and butchers.
“There is absolutely no evidence that these animals were toxic or posed a threat to public health,” he said.
A spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company Sanofi said some of the horses had been used to incubate antibodies to manufacture serums for conditions from rabies to snake bites. While in good health, the horses were certified as unfit for human consumption.
Spokesperson Alain Bernal of the Sanofi Pasteur vaccine division said the firm was co-operating with investigators but did not know how long the fraud had been going on.
“Horses are a factory of antibodies,” he said.
They were sold to traders suspected of falsifying veterinary documents or using veterinarian accomplices to issue false certificates so they could be used in the food chain.
A police statement said 100 officers along with inspectors from the national veterinary brigade took part in dawn raids in 11 districts.
Checks were also carried out in Spain in the Girona region because some of the suspect meat was exported, the prosecutor said.
Consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon said the operation stemmed from stepped-up monitoring of the industry after a French meat processing firm was at the centre of a Europe-wide scandal earlier this year over mislabelled frozen meals containing horse meat instead of beef.
The scandal, which broke in January when horse DNA was found in frozen burgers sold in Irish and British supermarkets, involved traders and abattoirs from Romania to the Netherlands.
Horse meat has slowly fallen out of favour with consumers in France, although it can still be bought at specialist butchers.
Eric Vigoureux, head of the national horse meat butchers’ association, said the entire industry should not be held responsible for the behaviour of a few rogue traders.