Authorities in the south of France have detained and questioned 12 people, including nine veterinarians and a local government official, as part of an ongoing investigation into a European horsemeat trafficking ring.
Those arrested on Wednesday are suspected of falsifying identification documents for horses deemed unfit for human consumption, including horses used in laboratory procedures and horses taken from equestrian clubs.
The chief of staff of Didier Mouly, the mayor of the southern town of Narbonne, was among those arrested. Mouly told reporters that the man was not working for him at the time of the alleged offenses. Two horse dealers were also detained for questioning.
The development is the latest twist in a long-running scandal that was first uncovered in December 2013, when French authorities acting on a tip arrested 21 people as part of a probe into the sale of illegal horsemeat.
The investigation centered on Patrick Rochette, a meat wholesaler from Narbonne who allegedly orchestrated the weekly slaughter of a dozen horses deemed unfit for human consumption, selling the cuts in his two butcher shops as well as to other European retailers.
In April, the European Union's criminal justice agency Eurojust announced that police from several countries had arrested 26 people in a Europe-wide crackdown on the illegal horsemeat trade. It appears that Rochette and his acolytes had been part of a major European horsemeat trafficking ring, reportedly headed by two Belgians living in the Ardennes.
According to the authorities, the suspects were able to slaughter and smuggle into the European food chain some 4,700 horses that were considered unfit for human consumption.
Some of the lab horses that ended up in the food chain had been used to manufacture serums against rabies, tetanus, and snake venom. In an article from December 2013, French daily Le Monde explained that meat from horses previously used to develop medicines can sometimes contain test substances that haven't been approved by the authorities.
Horses used in equestrian clubs are also deemed unfit for human consumption, because they are sometimes prescribed antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs. Horsemeat is considered safe for people to eat when it comes from horses that were bred specifically for their meat.
There are several mechanisms in place to make sure lab horses don't get turned into meatballs. Those who purchase the horses are required to sign a document stating that they will not bring the animal to a commercial abattoir. The animals are also fitted with a microchip for tracking.
The 12 people detained for questioning on Wednesday are suspected of supporting Rochette's operations by falsifying the identification documents and health records of horses and tampering with their microchips.
One of the victims of the fraud is French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi, which might have unwittingly supplied nearly 200 horses to the European food chain between 2010 and 2012.
Narbonne is located in the Aude department — a district that made headlines in 2013 when local meat processing company Spanghero was accused of knowingly selling horsemeat labeled as beef to its client Comigel.
Comigel supplies frozen meals to several supermarket chains and many other clients in the frozen food industry, including Findus. At the time, consumers were horrified to find out that some samples of Findus beef lasagne were found to contain up to 100 percent horsemeat.
Spanghero blamed Romanian abattoirs for supplying them with the meat and denied any knowledge of the substitution, despite records showing the company paid astonishingly low prices for its 'beef' and received the meat labeled with customs bar codes usually reserved for horse meat.
No link has yet been established between the Spanghero scandal and the dismantled horsemeat trafficking ring.