2,000 horses go missing every year in Northern Ireland
Some 2,000 horses go missing in Northern Ireland every year and cannot be traced, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has said.
Dismissing recent incorrect reports that there are 70,000 'unaccounted for' horses in the province, she stated the figure is believed to be significantly lower.
It is understood the 70,000 figure was based on USPCA estimates for a five-year period for the island of Ireland. In a written Assembly answer on Monday, Ms O'Neill disclosed there are a total of 35,615 horses registered to owners in Northern Ireland at present – and 183,000 in the Republic.
"Assuming the USPCA figures can be extrapolated on the basis of the relative horse populations north and south, the number of horses alleged to be unaccounted for in the north of Ireland in any one year is therefore around 2,000," she added.
The figures came as the Sinn Fein minister was accused of "belatedly" appearing in the Assembly to make a statement on the scandal and answer questions.
The Assembly's Agriculture Committee chairman, Paul Frew of the DUP, also said many members of the public believe that the large supermarkets have "got off lightly" in the role they have played in revelations horse meat has made it into the food chain.
"We all believe that supermarkets have played a part in pushing down prices and that that has led to some of these issues," he added.
The minister said the results of further tests on the full make-up of meat products are still awaited. She also revealed that since 2011 there have been 21 sample tests in Northern Ireland for bute – the chemical used for horses but banned from humans – and none had proved positive.
The DUP's Trevor Clarke asked, however, why the tests had been conducted when officials from the Food Standards Agency had told a joint Health and Agriculture committee meeting last week that the issue of the presence of horse meat in supermarket products had not been "on their radar".
She replied: "That is like saying that you should ignore a problem until it exists. You should always be prudent in looking for potential threats to the food chain."
UKIP MLA David McNarry urged her to boost consumer confidence by "standing by" the produce presently on shelves.
Ms O'Neill said: "I give an assurance over local produce – that is the only assurance I can give. That is what I am responsible for... I cannot stand over processed food."