Eighteen people have gone on trial in Marseille, France, accused of running a European horsemeat trading network involving produce unfit for human consumption.
The main defendants – from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain – are charged with "organised fraud" and "forgery and deception of goods that endanger human health”.
Only 13 were present at the court on Tuesday and some have admitted selling "non-compliant" animals between 2010 and 2015.
One of those accused is 58-year-old Jean-Marc Decker, a horse trader from Bastogne, eastern Belgium, who was described by prosecutors as the pivot of a "vast international horse trafficking" network.
It's alleged people working for Decker or his suppliers acquired horses from private individuals -- promising them "a peaceful retirement" and "good care" for their animals -- before slaughtering them.
More than 150 horse owners were victims of the alleged scam, of which around fifty have filed civil suits.
The national council of the order of veterinarians, the municipality of Alès and the National Interprofessional Association of Livestock and Meat (ANBV) have also brought civil action.
The investigation opened in France in 2013 and was then carried out jointly with Belgian investigators following a report from the National Brigade for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Investigations into an abattoir in Alès, a town in the Gard department.
Veterinary services uncovered a series of suspected frauds based on the falsification of identification books and health documents for the animals.
In particular, the defendants allegedly committed numerous breaches of European regulations concerning imported horses from countries of the European Union.
Two veterinarians at the slaughterhouse were due to appear in court on Tuesday, charged with complicity for allegedly turning a blind eye during controls at the slaughterhouses in Alès.
At the end of the chain, a wholesale company, which supplied the meat to as many as 80 butchers in the south of France, is also being prosecuted for “indifference” in its alleged failure to respect sanitary protocols.
It’s understood the company falsely believed the meat was of French origin.
This trial, which is due to last until June 24, will be followed by two others already scheduled for January and September 2023.
In 2013, there was another Europe-wide scandal when horse meat was discovered concealed in beef dishes, such as Findus lasagna. Millions of ready meals were withdrawn from stores across Europe as a result.
Typically avoided by consumers in the US and UK, horsemeat is sometimes eaten in France as a cheaper alternative to beef.
However, its production and distribution are strictly regulated by national and EU law.