By Tony Wardle
Viva! can take some of the blame (or credit) for the current horse meat scandal. Ten years ago we discovered that 100,000 horses annually were being shipped from Poland to Italy by road. These horse shipments - often in dilapidated lorries with a single driver - were sometimes taking days with the horses not rested, fed or watered for the entire journey.
Veterinary inspection at Gorizia, the port of entry, was abysmal and the horse's suffering would often continue as far as Sicily, where some would have to be dragged from the transporters with chains as they were incapable of standing. Other horse transporters from further east – Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus - were transiting through Polish check points without hindrance.
No one gave a damn – not the Polish or Italian authorities, not the dealers, not the handful of EU inspectors and certainly not the vets. This disinterest wasn't specific to horses but reflects their attitude to all live animal transportation. They see themselves as part of the industry and there to facilitate it not censure it.
We decided that this appalling abuse of animals had to be challenged and so opened offices in Warsaw to choke off the trade. We filmed in Polish markets where the horses were bought and watched them being uncomprehendingly loaded onto the-long distance transporters with no sign of food or water.
The German group, Animals Angels, worked with us and filmed these transporters along the route, recording on camera the injuries, death, despair and sickening abuse of the animals. Viva! cut this footage into a heart-breaking film and used it as the central plank in our Polish campaign. It shows scene after scene of abuse and despair and can be viewed here. You'll need a strong stomach.
One sequence sums up the utter disregard that was allowed to flourish without sanction. It shows a transporter arriving at a 'rest' station in the Czech Republic, pulling in out of the dark and lowering its tailgate onto a dimply-lit wooden platform. Three of the horses are down and have to be made to stand as excreta pours out of the back of the lorry. One by one they are led away with about 10 others and disappear into the dark, trembling and obviously exhausted.
Attention then focuses on a pile of what looks like excreta furthest from the tail gate and after minutes of vicious prodding it suddenly moves and reveals itself to be a little grey mare. As the filth pours down her body vicious cuts can be seen from where she has been trampled – possibly for hours – in the swaying lorry. She is clearly close to death and is also removed shaking and quaking but collapses when she is forced down a ramp. She remains there for a further six hours until euthanized by a vet – no one was prepared to foot the bill for a night call out.
The other horses, despite their condition, are immediately reloaded without rest, food or water. This shocking film was shown on Polish TV more than 30 times and caused a public outcry. It ended with the trade collapsing by more than two-thirds and Poland's chief vet blaming us for its decline. The strong public criticism provoked by our campaign made the Polish authorities concentrate on properly monitoring the trade for the first time and demanded far better facilities and modern lorries but the trade still continues at a much lower level.
The outcome of Viva!'s campaign was not only to choke off the outlet for live horse exports but also to decreased its profitability. We suspect that some of those horses that were being exported are now being slaughtered in the country and new markets have been sought for the chilled and frozen meat.
One disturbing aspect of the trade we discovered through various testimonies was the involvement of criminal gangs who, we believe, use the stench of the lorries to camouflage illegal cargos of cigarettes. It is also believed that hard drugs are secreted in the vaginas of mares. Impossible to prove, particularly as the various authorities seem to have no interest in investigating it.
Again hard to prove but there is little doubt that the mob is involved and is maybe one reason why the illegal use of horse meat is so widespread – why wouldn't they be active when it can be increased in value five-fold simply by labelling it beef? Almost as good as drug profits!
As with anything that threatens the meat and dairy industry, the government's instant reaction is always to offer reassurances that everything is alright – remember John Gummer and BSE (it wasn't alright but fortunately for him, not as bad as it might have been). And so it was with secretary of state Owen Paterson, a man who made his millions from the leather of livestock.
Like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights, he immediately claimed that everything was okay and it was just a question of labelling. He had no idea how or where the horses were slaughtered and under what conditions or what their drug regime had been. He leant on Jeff (Baron) Rooker's assurances (just resigned as head of the Food Standards Agency), a man who also cosied up to the livestock industry by heading up the dairy farmers body.
No one has expressed concern over the possible welfare issues for slaughtered horses but then, why would they? We live with the pretence that farming and slaughter in the UK is the gold standard and it's only Johnny Foreigner who's cruel to animals. And it continues no matter how frequently groups such as Viva! go inside factory farms and slaughterhouses and show the abysmal reality.
There is a huge stench of hypocrisy emanating from this whole frenetic news story. We fill our cheap pies and pasties with macerated mush, refuse to seriously tackle health labelling for our own consumers, allow multinationals to continue diseasing our children with their fatty, sweet products, drag in cheap meat from every corner of the planet and pretend that cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, obesity and all the other degenerative diseases are an act of God and can only be tackled by giving money to charities to aid their research. To hell with prevention through diet!
We are a society where the promotion and protection of the livestock industry is paramount because it is the largest industry on Earth, and anyone who's anyone is involved in it – from the Royals to the Church of England, Tory ministers to big pharma. Their panic over horse meat has nothing to do with the treatment of horses or even public revulsion – it is because they do not want a spotlight shone into the dark recesses of meat and dairy production because the reaction of intelligent people is increasingly to reject the whole lot.
I'm not sure there's a lot to choose between the government and the mob when it comes to meat.
Tony Wardle is the associate director of animal campaigning group Viva!
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.