When Aline Oudin was forced to find a new home for her beloved 28-year-old chestnut horse Ténor du Pluvinage, she placed an advert asking if anyone could offer him a new field to see out his final days.
A man in his 60s responded saying he was looking for a calm companion for the young mare he had bought his daughter, so Oudin let him take the horse away with the promise she could visit him regularly.
“Everything happened very quickly. I didn’t have time to think. The gentleman liked Ténor and I gave him my trust … I was in great distress at having to separate from my companion of 23 years,” she said afterwards.
“Seeing me in tears, the man comforted me and assured me that my horse would be well cared for and that I could come and see him whenever I wanted. That same evening, the man phoned me to tell me that the return journey had gone well. But when I called him back to ask for his name and address, his phone was on voicemail and then the line was disconnected.
Oudin placed appeals and warnings to try to discover what had happened to her animal. Months later she discovered the horse had been sent to an abattoir.
Nine years on, 18 people, including two veterinarians, are appearing in court in Marseille on Monday accused of involvement in a vast illegal trafficking network across Europe that allegedly supplied horsemeat unfit for human consumption to wholesalers and butchers.
The defendants, from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, are thought to have bought and sold thousands of retired draft horses and racehorses, and even ponies, that were exported to Belgium where they were allegedly given fake identification and tracking documents before being sent back to abattoirs in the south of France.
They have been charged with fraud as part of an organized gang, or supplying false and deceptive goods liable to be a danger for human health, and face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Eight of the accused have been in custody since 2015 after European police smashed the continent-wide network.
Mathilde Bloch, the investigating judge, said detectives had shown “negligence or positive action showing the complicity of the two vets” accused of falsifying documents.
Oudin, from Meurthe-et-Moselle in eastern France, is one of more than 150 horse owners thought to have handed over their old animals believing they would be looked after in their final years.
“I learned after lengthy research that my horse had been killed when he had been given insecticide, worming and anti-inflammatory treatments that would have made him totally unfit for eating,” she told French journalists. “I have been profoundly hurt. I had this horse for 20 years and he was part of the family.”
Lionel Febbraro, a lawyer for one of the veterinarians, blamed confusion over “incredibly complex” European rules for his client’s involvement. “Even if I admit it can’t be pleasant to learn that your horse has ended up at the abattoir, a priori, nobody died poisoned,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism