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CRIME

Trial begins in France over European horsemeat scandal

Eighteen people went on trial in France on Tuesday accused of running a Europe-wide giant horsemeat trading network involving produce not cleared for human consumption.

Trial begins in France over European horsemeat scandal
Illustration photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

Mostly shunned by consumers in the United States and Britain, horsemeat — typically cheaper than beef — has long been part of culinary habits across European countries, including France, but its production and distribution are strictly regulated.

The case coming to trial in the southern port city of Marseille is the biggest horsemeat scandal since 2013, when millions of ready meals were withdrawn from stores across Europe after they were found to contain horsemeat instead of only beef as indicated on the label.

Standing trial are French, Belgian and Dutch nationals charged with violating EU sanitary rules governing the horsemeat trade, and with forging official documents between 2010 and 2015.

They are also accused of duping the owners of ageing horses into believing that their beloved animals would live out their days in the countryside when in reality they were taken straight to the slaughterhouse.

The specific charges in the trial, which is set to last for three weeks, are fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, and misleading consumers and endangering their health.

The members of the group, which includes licenced horse meat traders and veterinary surgeons, are believed to have violated a number of EU rules about the import of horses, including by forging certificates of origin.

The main suspect is 58-year-old Belgian Jean-Marc Decker, who prosecutors say supplied the network with horses whose meat was unfit for consumption.

In addition to the accused individuals, mostly in the 50s or 60s, a horsemeat wholesale company based in southern France is also in the dock for distributing the meat, falsely claiming that it was French.

The company, according to prosecutors, “was indifferent to the health imperatives governing the sector”.

Court proceedings were to start with the testimony of the top veterinary official at the municipal abattoir in Ales, southern France, where the investigation started in 2013.

Former horse owner Aline Oudin, due to testify Wednesday, told AFP she had handed her horse over to one of the defendants in 2013 in exchange for a promise of a “happy retirement” for the animal. Two weeks later she found out that the horse had been slaughtered and its meat sold.

“They tricked owners, they tricked consumers, they tricked everybody,” she said.

Plaintiffs also include France’s veterinary association, the cattle and meatpacking association ANBV and the Ales municipality.

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WILDFIRES

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

On the ground, two officers from a special mobile brigade of France's paramilitary gendarmerie speed along a forest track.

French police track forest fire-starters by air and land

Above them, a helicopter scans the landscape to warn them of any fires or anyone who might be looking to start one.

These are the members of a newly created police team who have just started patrolling in southwest France to seek out and arrest the fire-starters devastating the region’s forests.

In the last week, no less than 20 fires have broken out in the forest bordering the seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer in the La Gironde department of southwest France, says the local gendarmerie.

While some have burned for just a 100 square metres (322 square feet), the largest devoured 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest.

Scorched trees and charred trunks line the paths and cycle paths that criss-cross the woods.

To stop the devastation, local officials have sent in the new unit, the Forest Vigilance Platoon (PVF) made up of 15 reservist gendarmes, a senior police officer and two motorcyclists from the mobile brigade, backed up by the
helicopter.

Spread across three zones, the PVF patrol the forest on motorbikes, all-terrain bicycles or in cars, where possible, on the hunt for fire-starters.

Set up just last week they started patrolling on Thursday.

The idea is that the PVF will free up firefighters who have been stretched thin battling blazes that since Tuesday have burned up 7,400 hectares of pine forests at the southern end of Gironde.

“After the major fires in July, we observed a rise in the number of arson cases,” said Martin Guespereau, deputy prefect for defence and security in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which covers the Gironde.

“There are around twenty fires of unknown origin a day in Gironde.”

¬†According to France’s National Forests Office (ONF) nine out of 10 fires were started by people — and three out of 10 were started deliberately.

Forest off-limits

“The Forest Vigilance Platoon is a support division, whose aim is to prevent, detect and possible to arrest,” said Captain Christophe Roque, who was given the job of putting the team together.

Red-and-white signs at the edge of the Soulac-sur-Mer forest inform walkers that due to the “very severe” risk of fire, the forest is off-limits to the public until further notice — and has been since August 11.

A few cyclists were nevertheless out on the trails on Saturday, and were quickly intercepted by the gendarmes of the PVF.

“As soon as we come across someone, we get their identity,” said one member of the team, Bruno Kechtoff. “Because if we come across the same person several times, then that becomes suspicious.”

A message comes over the radio: two outbreaks of fire barely 500 metres (yards) apart, near Bazas, south of Bordeaux, the regional capital. A local has reported seeing someone on a moped wearing “yellow-trimmed” trousers”.

The LVF’s helicopter veers off towards Bazas, 130 kilometres away (80 miles) away.

Where they are sent next depends on where the next fires break out, says Constable Jeremy Hernandez. “We have been called here urgently but we can move if other areas are concerned.”

Then they are in their car and driving off, siren wailing, on the look-out for a quad reported in the woods.

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