Authorities have arrested six people after finding horse meat being sold for use in burgers in a state of southern Brazil.

They were arrested in Caxias do Sul as part of an operation led by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rio Grande do Sul.

Operation Hipo began two months ago after authorities received a complaint about the possible sale of meat and unlicensed slaughter of horses that could have been going on for at least seven months.

About 70 officers from the ministry and other agencies participated in the action, which included 15 search and seizure warrants. The objective was to break up the alleged crime group and investigate crimes against consumer relations and public health.

Horse meat found in burgers
Investigators found the group supplied sites in the city with large amounts of meat in the form of hamburgers and steaks from the horse slaughter operation.

Photo courtesy of Tiago Coutinho and MPRS

The meat was ground, or minced, and sold to commercial establishments that use ground beef in Caxias do Sul and the surrounding region.

Analysis of two hamburgers in Caxias do Sul found the presence of horse DNA. Turkey and pork were also mixed into burgers.

Alcindo Bastos, who coordinated the operation, said the scale of the fraud involved about 800 kilograms of meat being distributed per week. He added findings reinforce the importance that establishments never purchase products that have not been inspected. Work is ongoing to find out if businesses knew they were buying horse and other meats instead of beef.

Preliminary information suggests that about 60 percent of hamburger sellers in Caxias do Sul purchased products from the implicated group, said officials.

Site lacked approval
The group’s operation was not authorized for the slaughter and sale of meat. Authorities found the processing area had poor hygiene and sanitation and also voiced concerns about animal welfare and slaughter conditions. Other findings point to the use of spoiled meat that had been washed and mixed with other meats to make the hamburgers.

Three people were responsible for the slaughter and processing of meat; one man led its marketing in the form of hamburgers and steaks to restaurants and another person found and bought the horses that would later be slaughtered.

Seizures included five horses and three cattle. About a ton and a half of products were confiscated as they had not been inspected, including hamburgers and meat. Some were sent for analysis to verify whether they are from horses.

Horse meat issues have occurred before with operations in Europe targeting horse passport documents and equine meat. In 2013, Irish authorities uncovered horse meat being sold as beef in burgers and the fraud spread across Europe leading to millions of products being recalled.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)