The Irish Government has fast-tracked plans to establish a central equine database in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.

Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has announced he is pushing through plans to establish the database within the Animal Identification and Movement [AIM] system which contains data on cattle, sheep and pigs.

Mr Coveney said facilities were put in place during the weekend (May 4 and 5) to receive and record equine animal registration details received from passport issuing organisations (PIO). He said the information would be used by his department's veterinary staff to supplement the current checks at slaughterhouses.

The Government is expected data covering over 70 per cent of equine animals registered since January 1, 1980, will be on the database in its first week of operation. Mr Coveney said contacts would continue with the PIOs that have not provided data with a view to having all relevant data on the database 'at the earliest opportunity'.

The Minister added he would like to see the establishment of a single PIO.

The European Commission recently announced its intention to submit proposals to amend existing legislation to make it easier Government departments or agencies to take over responsibility for issuing passports.

The Minister said he intends to work with passport organisations to introduce a new system.

Mr Coveney said: "I have acted swiftly, as I promised to do in the immediate aftermath of the equine DNA issue and will move to the final stage in the establishment of a single Passport Issuing Agency once EU legislation provides me with the overarching legal base to put this into effect."

While the contamination of meat products with horsemeat is being treated as a pan-European fraud on a large scale, the scandal has raised questions about the relative lack of controls surrounding horsemeat in Ireland and the UK.

It emerged in February that an Irish meat plant, B&F Meats, located in Thomastown, County  Kilkenny, had been selling horse meat to the Czech Republic labelled as beef. The company has claimed that no fraudulent intent was involved but commenting on a report in March, Mr Coveney said the question of instituting legal proceedings over the labelling breach 'remains under consideration'.

The same report by Mr Coveney's Agriculture Department was heavily critical of Ossory Meats, a county Offaly horse abattoir, where all operations were suspended earlier this year after numerous breaches of horse identification and traceability rules were found.

Official figures from the department show more than 57,000 horses were slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland between 2008 and 2012. The official numbers increased from just over 2,000 in 2008 to more than 24,000 in 2012.

The Irish Government was not able to say, however, where the horse meat ended up, including what proportion was exported.

The Ulster Society For Prevention of Cruelty To Animals (USPCA) claimed when the scandal broke earlier this year that in recent times 'thousands of unwanted and abandoned horses' in Ireland have 'been gathered up and corralled across the country awaiting slaughter'.

USPCA spokesman David Wilson said: "Unscrupulous criminal elements have been profiting from these unfortunate animals by exploiting a hopelessly flawed horse passport scheme, lax animal export controls at ports and slaughter houses/processors willing to compromise animal welfare and public safety for a quick profit."

The Irish Agriculture Department said: "Where forged or tampered passports accompanying horses to slaughter are detected, it is the policy that such animals are destroyed and removed from the food chain."

(Source: farmersguardian.com)