On the floor of a dilapidated stable in Botosani county, a horse collapses in a pile of dung left by the cows he shares the stall with. A few flies attempt to creep under his eyelids. The horse slowly blinks once every couple of minutes. That’s the only indication he might still be alive.
He’s got some blotches on the front legs. The owner greases him with sheep lard and vaseline from the truck. He pulls out a knife from his back pocket, carefully trims the animal’s skin and removes the blotches off the tendons. He cleans the wound with methylene blue and gives him an antibiotic shot. And then, he waits.
Toward the evening, the horse starts moaning through his nostrils, seemingly trying to empty his lungs of all the air. In a fit of despair, the owner shoves the animal in the van and drives out to the slaughter house in the nearby village. The guard ushers him to the director’s office. He’s got no paperwork for the horse, so the director only offers him 200 RON. He takes the money without trying to bargain. It’s better than nothing.
A week later, the horse from Botosani is being served as beef lasagna on a plate from England.
A sick connection worth tens of millions of Euros exists between the nag that pulls the plough on Romanian fields and the European meat industry.
In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of horses disappeared from Romania, almost as many as those killed in the ‘50s by the Communists, after the collectivization.
We traveled for 2,000km around the country accompanied by a team of Swedish journalists to find out how the horse meat business works. From the lands of the farmers to the vans of the ruthless middlemen and the slaughter houses built using the newest technology, this is the story of the Romanian nag becoming European lasagna beef.
Romania is the third largest EU exporter despite not having stock farms
According to several sources, Romania has no equine stock farms. Despite this, in the past years it has become one of the largest exporters of horse meat in Europe. Where do the horses come from?
The slaughterhouses rely on middlemen to take advantage of low levels of income and education among farmers: they buy their animals regardless of what condition they’re in, and sell them again to cash in a good profit.
When Romania became a member of the EU, commodity regulations suddenly relaxed. A few years later, owing to a European crisis around equine infectious anemia, Romania was prohibited from exporting live horses. It was, however, free to sell their meat.
The Guardian made an interactive map showing how many kilograms of horse meat Romania exported in 2012:
From the 800,000 horses that Romania had in 2007, the number dropped to 500,000 in 2012. The great calmageddon (n.b. “cal” translates to “horse”) took place in 2009. Almost 150,000 horses were exterminated that year.
Hundreds of thousands of horses that had been pulling the ploughs in the fields entered a business worth some tens of millions of euro taking place in offshore fiscal paradises. Starving, overworked horses treated with illegally purchased antibiotics.
Horse trading at the farm animal market
For hundreds of years, Romanian farmers have been using horses for agricultural work. “Ploughing, sowing, you name it. Here and there we go, to the mill, the market,” says a village woman in Botosani county. She came with her husband to the animal market to buy essentials for the farm. She didn’t register her mare with a passport, or microchip, but she takes care of her. “See how she’s lifting her front foot? Her horse shoe doesn’t fit right, it’s hurting her. At home I treat her myself. I use sheep lard, vaseline from the cars, I give her injections, wash her with teas…”
We’re in Dolhasca, one of the largest animal markets in Suceava county. People from around the county gather here every Wednesday. Among hens, pigs, lambs and jeeps, a bunch of vagabonds rub their hands against some bottles of beer, propping themselves up against a cart with Austrian license plates.
The boss of the cart came down from the mountains to sell a young mare named Maria. He says she’s good for any kind of labor, but especially for pulling. He offers her to us for a trial.
He has no documentation for the mare. “We don’t go around making documents. We don’t have money for that. We raised this mare ourselves. I’m vouching for it. If she won’t pull, you can bring her back to me.”
He wants 6,000 RON for her, but he’ll take 5,000 as long as I give him cash. According to him, if you take good care of a mare, she’ll last you 40 years or more. “And then, you can just sell her at the slaughterhouse,” he says blithely.
A burly man tiptoes his way through the crowd of drinking comrades, almost dancing to the lyrics of folk music drowning the incessant wailing of the animals in the market. Head held high, he comes our way. He asks us to take a photo of him and the boys. He has no email address or Facebook, but writes down on a piece of paper his home address, so that we can send the photo there. His name is Robota Constantin, and he is a young man from Falticeni with large eyes and a gap between his front teeth. He spent a few years in Spain, but since coming back, he has only been doing business with animals. Horses in particular.
He sells undocumented horses and serenely tells us that nowhere in the country can one get proper paperwork. “Only if you want to cross the border with them. Like seven years ago, when I went to Spain. They used to transport them to Spain, or Italy. They took them alive, loaded them in trucks and made the papers on the spot. They’d make passports for them and send them west.”
That’s how horse exports operated back in the year 2000: “We’d gather up 10, 15, 20 horses. Enough of them to fill one heavy truck. There was another guy in the nearby village. He’d collect them the same way. Then the truck would come and load up here, and from there it would go to Stanca, or Bucharest. Once it reached the capital, other wiseguys would join in. 5 or 6 pairs of hands. And from there, 10 or so trucks would leave and cross the border. Where they went, I don’t really know. But they took the horses alive.”
You operate on the nag at home, with a swiss army knife
Business hasn’t been good for Constantin recently. People are poor; they only sell horses as a last resort, or when they get sick. “I know how to treat them. I took not one horse, but 100 of them from people’s stables. I took this one nag when he was fallen to the floor. I took him home, kept him. 3 days later the horse was fine.”
It’s a “piece of cake” to treat a horse that was hit over its hind legs. “There’s this injection available now. The doctor usually does it, but I know to do it myself, I know which one it is. You can get rid of the pain. With the front legs, it gets complicated. You cut, you notch, gotta remove the tendon… with a knife, or a small scalpel. You must lay the horse down on the floor, there’s lots of pain. Then you cover the wound with methylene blue and give him some antibiotics. Two days later he’s as good as new.”
Romanians have been eating horse meat barbecue for years
In 2009, the Romanian Sanitary-Veterinary and Food Safety Department conducted the first investigations that specifically targeted horse meat being passed as ground beef. They uncovered an entire network of illegal middlemen and butchers from Suceava county who were slaughtering the horses in the fields and delivering them directly to meat producers. They caught them in the middle of the night, as they were transporting half a ton of horse meat in the trunk of a 4×4.
One of the companies that was selling horse meat in 2009 continued to do so until 2013. In March, the Nicolin SRL firm from Ploiesti sold 2,000 casseroles of “ground beef” in 36 counties. 1,500 of them made their way to Romanian stomachs.
The same story repeated in Vrancea county. Also in 2009, four villagers were caught slaughtering horses and selling them as ground beef to abattoirs around the country. More than 60 tons of horse meat were confiscated.
Poisoned horse meat
Injecting a horse with antibiotics means that its meat will be toxic for at least half a year. Normally, the antibiotic can only be obtained via medical prescription. But farmers don’t have the means to go to the doctor. If the horse gets sick, they administer the injections themselves. And, in many cases, they then sell the horse to a slaughterhouse.
One law that has been introduced ever since 2005 says that if you want to buy or sell a horse, you need a passport released by the Office of Amelioration and Reproduction in Zootechnics (OARZ). Veterinarians are responsible for evaluating a horse’s health status, writing up an identification file and implanting the animal with a microchip under the skin of its neck. Once this is all done, OARZ records the horse in the database and releases an “equine passport” to the owner. The document serves as proof that the animal is healthy and up to date with its check-ups, and also records the number of owners it had.
In reality, these kinds of laws are more like science fiction. Out of the 500 horses that Dr. Bogdan Novenschi has in his database in Iasi county, only 15-20 are registered and have legal documentation. Novenschi is the president of the Patronage of Private Veterinarians in Romania. He explained to us the reasons people do not take their horses to the vet, or apply for passports for them.
1. The largest chains of pharmacies in the country are owned by the very people that should evaluate them. Left unattended, they provide farmers with strong antibiotics without requiring prescriptions from the doctors. The farmers inject the medication into the animals, and the animals end up being consumed most of the time, even though their meat is full of toxic substances.
2. Veterinarians only get to tend to about a third of all the sick animals. In Romania, about 3,000 vets are active, serving 2,685 villages. A village consists of about 800-1,000 households, each with about 3 animals. A single veterinarian may be responsible for up to 5,000 animals.
3. The Romanian farmer lacks money, education and time. Rather than worrying about it, he prefers doing things by himself.
Dr. Novenschi tells us about how slaughterhouses used to make a lot of money at the time when Europe was in full alert because of the horse AIDS pandemic, and Romanian farmers were forced to sacrifice their animals at the abattoirs. The Sanitary-Veterinary Departments would contact the slaughterhouses and report having “5 horses in this village, 3 in this one… How much? 20 million per horse. Whatever the abattoir doesn’t provide, we will. And the abattoir will of course give the poor fellow almost nothing, even if they get to place the horse on the market without any restrictions. The abattoir sacrifices nothing. This is like a godsend for them, to receive some horses for half the price they would have normally paid for it.”
One slaughterhouse was involved in the European labeling scandal
A few piles of folders sit on the floor of the protocol room of the Doly Com abattoir. With the throng of inspections and reporters that have been streaming in recently, employers do not bother sorting them anymore. They know others will be back to check their papers.
Doly Com SRL is one of the slaughterhouses involved in the so-called beef meat scandal. The meat left the abattoir in Botosani correctly labeled, but on its way to England it somehow “transformed” into beef. It is not yet clear who committed the fraud in this case, but all the leads seem to point to a Dutch agency owned by a firm from Cyprus, which in turn is registered in the offshore fiscal paradise in the British Virgin Islands.
Here are a few details about the secret trajectory of horse meat, in an infographic by colleagues at RISE Project:
“ALL the animals that make it here have proper papers, sanitary-veterinary certificates, microchip implants. We do things by the book here!” vows Iulian Cazacut, the owner of the abattoir. He has no problem showing us how meat is processed in his slaughterhouse.
Before being sacrificed, the animals listen to classical music. The machine that packages the meat pieces chopped up on the assembly line by people dressed like astronauts makes the place look like a laboratory. Cazacut relaxedly comments, “This is the way it’s done across all of Europe. We’re using European regulations, after all…”
A former abattoir guard reveals where horses come from
We met him in the village of Catamarasti, Botosani County. We were out looking for illegal slaughterhouses, when a 60-year-old man hitched a ride with us to town. He used to be a security guard at Doly Com: “there, in Roma (n.b. a village in Botosani), where they had that scandal about horse meat.”
“What scandal was it?”
“With horses, with that horse meat… This is no-man’s land. Who’s going to come inspecting things? Here, everyone is someone, they’re all just like in Bucharest. He has this guy’s back, who has the other guy’s back…”
“Do villagers come sell their animals to the slaughterhouse?”
“Yes, sir. I don’t know why that surprises you. Where would we go sell the animals? There’s nowhere else.”
“And how does it work, do you just go to the gate and…”
“You go to the gate, you knock, you talk to the director, he sends a truck out and you load the calves or whatever else you’ve got to sell back at your place.”
“What if you only have two horses? Will they take them?”
“You talk to the owner, yes. He’ll send a truck, a driver. That’s how things get done.”
“No papers, anything?”
“What would I need papers for now that there’s no subsidy?”
“Do these people have documents for the horses? Microchips or anything?”
“They haven’t got any microchips. There used to be those that get implanted in the neck, but now they’re gone.”
I tell him I am a journalist looking for illegal slaughterhouses. His voice starts shaking. He insists that I stop the car behind a building on the side of the national road. He points me to a dead end — “there, over there is an illegal slaughterhouse” — and he dashes out of the car. I walk down to the end of the street and find a cement factory. I look behind. The guard was gone.
The eldest of Romanian horse brokers
Ion Adam is from Codlea. He is 85 years old and has sold more than 3,000 horses throughout his career, most of them without papers, “but never stolen. I never took them from gypsies. I know who to buy from.” He’s been a middleman for 60 years and he says that the thing he loves most about his job is the money. He has bought over 30 cars and has 3 sons, all of them well-off.
Mr. Adam remembers that he used to sell horses to the farmers in Urziceni and Slobozia, and people would work their horses to the bone. “They were the big kind, not work horses. The kind you see in American movies.” The broker would take them back at half their initial weight and price and sell them again in Italy.
In the ‘90s he made a lot of money exporting wild horses from Letea forest. “I brought some animals from there as well, but I used to sell them to the Italians. I had a friend in Focsani and he’d buy them from some gypsies. We sold them to be slaughtered in Italy. Alive.”
The strangest moment in Adam’s career happened in the ‘50s, when the Communists gave him money to kill horses:
“Back in 1954, I would give them a fatal injection, since that would get me more cash from the doctor. I’d inject some gasoline, the animal would die and I’d make more at the doctor. That’s when the collectivization started, and… we took them to be burned…”
The Communists killed 500,000 horses
When the Communists came to power in the ‘50s, they wanted to mechanize agriculture. The horse was the biggest obstacle.
Between the years 1950 and 1965, a “unique massacre” took place in Europe. Over 500,000 horses were killed on the orders of the Communists. The regime decided that only tractors and mechanized equipment were to be used for agriculture. The horses were taken from collective farms, tied to trees and slaughtered with knives and axes by executioners hired by the Ministry of Agriculture. The horse meat was then used to feed pigs, birds or fish.
Before the great slaughter, Romania had about 1,100,000 horses. By 1965, the population dropped to 600,000. Only the two world wars caused more horses to perish.
Source: Direcția de cai de rasă, Romsilva (1900-1989); INS (1990-2011).
After 1965, the Communists slowed down the killings, once they concluded that horses are actually useful in hillier areas. The horses helped transport roughly 13 million tons of agricultural products each year. The numbers climbed up until 1990.
The revolution in 1989 brought with it a revenge of sorts for horses, when tractors also ended up in their own junk yards. A golden age of the horse followed until the mid-2000s. At that time, Romania joined the EU, opening its borders to meat exports.
In the last 5 years, the number of horses has dropped by about 300,000. We have under 600,000 left, the lowest since the initial census. The glory of the nag has reached its nadir.
The horse used to have a special bond with the Romanian farmer. That’s how it managed to defeat the forced industrialization during the Communist era. In the last few years, the farmer has often journeyed westward, and as always, the loyal horse followed him. This time, in refrigerated trucks.
Editor: Vlad Ursulean
Translated by Angela Rădulescu