Department of Agriculture investigation to examine the supply of horses for slaughter

Minister for Finance tells Dáil of serious concern about public health and animal welfare in wake of RTÉ Investigates programme

The Department of Agriculture is conducting an investigation into the supply of equines for slaughter. File photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

There is serious concern about public health and animal welfare in the wake of an RTÉ Investigates programme into the Irish equine industry, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath has said.

An investigation was broadcaston RTÉ One examining the Irish and European horse industries, concerning the treatment of horses that are being sent for slaughter at the country’s only licensed equine abattoir.

The programme on Wednesday night revealed scenes of “shocking and appalling” animal cruelty and evidence of identity falsification of horses with microchips and fake passports.

Mr McGrath said that “if animals ended up in the EU food chain that shouldn’t have because of chemicals that had been injected in them previously that is a cause of concern.

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Mr McGrath said a full investigation has been under way for a number of weeks following contact by RTÉ with the Department of Agriculture, and An Garda Siochána “are taking the appropriate action as well”.

He said the Government “unreservedly condemns the scenes that we witnessed and the full forces of the law will be applied, where breaches are proven in a court of law”.

He was “sickened and appalled by what I saw, the mistreatment of beautiful animals. And I think it’s important to say that there’s no question that the treatment that we witnessed last night is not representative of the wider equine industry”.

RTÉ Investigates: Horrifying scenes of horse cruelty shows racing needs to actOpens in new window ]

Mr McGrath was responding to Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty who said that about 2,000 horses “were slaughtered and shot in Shannonside Foods Limited in Kildare last year alone, with two thirds of them bred for the horse racing industry”.

Mr Doherty said an animal welfare officer was seen inserting false identification microchips into horses and the documentary revealed the “beating and the stabbing with a pitchfork of a dying horse, the whipping of horses. It is absolutely intolerable”.

“With the cruelty and the abuse taking place, literally a yard’s-throw away from the slaughterhouse in which the department official was sitting when supervising, people are asking how could it be that this building just literally yards away, didn’t fall under the remit of the Department of Agriculture.”

The Minister said “it would appear at this point that the appalling mistreatment that we witnessed on our television screens was happening in a holding building, not in the slaughterhouse itself, which is a regulated area and where the Department Inspector would have been present.”

Former minister for agriculture Simon Coveney said the abbatoir should be closed until there is more clarity about the evidence shown in the documentary.

He added however that if it was to remain hope it needs to be under the supervision of department vets”.

“But under no circumstances in my view should this company continue to operate as it did under the management and staff that we saw on our screens last night until we have a final investigation concluded.”

He also found it “hard to believe Department of Agriculture vets raised no suspicions” about what was happening because the examining vets would have seen the horses and their condition, after they were moved from the holding hall.

In a statement issued following the documentary airing, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said he was “taking this matter extremely seriously”.

“My department has already commenced an investigation in recent weeks involving the supply of equines for slaughter, with aspects of the ongoing investigation related to some of the broadcast activities,” he said.

Horse Racing Ireland, the governing body of horse racing, said its board, management and staff were “deeply shocked and appalled” by the content of the RTÉ Investigates programme.

In a statement, it said the “behaviour depicted in the RTÉ 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”.

Criminal and regulatory sanction “must be imposed on anyone found to have behaved in an illegal way towards horses,” it said.

HRI said it would review the issues raised in the RTÉ documentary and will “actively support any Department of Agriculture or Garda investigation”, urging anyone with information about mistreatment of horses to report it to An Garda Síochána.

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

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson is a reporter for The Irish Times