Down the backroads of south Armagh lurks an illegal meat trade run by gangs prepared to risk public health in the search for a quick profit
Gangs behind a lucrative black market trade involving the theft and slaughter of thousands of farm animals for food are putting lives at risk, it has been warned.
Highly-organised criminals – believed to have links to republican paramilitaries – have been accused of putting the public's health in jeopardy through the huge underground industry.
Health Minister Edwin Poots (right) yesterday said that the gangs, notably those in south Armagh, would not be allowed to hold Northern Ireland's food industry, which accounts for 10% of all jobs, to ransom.
"We cannot afford for this industry to be dragged down by criminal elements from one particular area that keep popping their heads up over and over again," he told the Assembly.
"It is very unfortunate that some ne'er-do-wells are prepared to compromise the Northern Ireland industry in such a way."
When asked to give assurances none of the illicit meat had entered schools or hospitals, the minister reacted angrily, asking Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson if she "seriously believed meat from the back of a lorry" would be allowed to enter either.
Mr Poots' comments came after a suspected illegal animal slaughter house and meat-cutting plant was uncovered close to the border on Monday.
Meat produced at the operation discovered in the Newry and Mourne area was allegedly done so without official hygiene checks, the Food Standards Agency added.
Investigations are ongoing to find out what businesses the produce was sold to.
Ulster Unionist MLA and the party's health spokesman, Roy Beggs, said the illicit meat trade was hugely alarming.
"It is absolutely vital that the public know that the meat they are eating complies with minimum standards and most importantly is safe for human consumption," he said.
"Last September the Ulster Unionist Party revealed that 9,000 cattle went missing or were stolen over the preceding three years.
"At the time, we stated our suspicions that criminal gangs were stealing cattle every year with the intent to either illegally process the meat themselves or dispose of them across the border with fake documentation. This now appears to have been the case."
The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) said it welcomed the clampdown in south Armagh.
"At this stage we don't know the scale of this operation, how much stock has actually gone through it," UFU president Harry Sinclair said.
He added that "until the investigation is completed, it will be difficult to say just what has been happening", but he said farmers had been urging the police to take action against rural crime for some time.
"It's good now to see action taking place on the ground," he said.
The PSNI, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and Newry and Mourne District Council are all involved in the multi-agency investigation. "I think that is what is needed to stamp it out – this cross-departmental, cross-body approach," the UFU president added.
Newry and Mourne DUP MLA William Irwin said allegations of illegal slaughtering plants had been circulating in the area for some time.
"It is high time the entire issue of rural crime and blatant flouting of the law is taken into account and dealt with in the most robust judicial fashion," he said.
"I urge the public in this area to continue to provide information which will assist the police in their inquiries."
Maria Jennings, director of the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland, said: "We are currently investigating which businesses have been supplied with meat from the plant and we will provide further information once we have it."