July 16 (UPI) -- Spanish police, in coordination with Europol, dismantled an organized crime group trading horsemeat in Europe sold for humans but unfit for consumption.
Spain's Guardia Civil arrested 65 people and charged them with crimes that included animal abuse, document forgery, perverting the course of justice, crimes against public health, money laundering and being part of a criminal organization, Europol announced Sunday.
The operation was coordinated with police in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland and Britain.
In 2016, the Guardia Civil's Environmental Protection Service "detected a scam whereby horses in bad shape, too old or simply labelled as 'not suitable for consumption' were being slaughtered in two different slaughterhouses," Europol said in a release.
Meat from the animals, which came from Portugal and several parts of northern Spain, was processed and sent to Belgium, a major horsemeat exporter.
The crime group modified microchips and documentation.
An unidentified Dutch businessman arrested in Belgium is suspected of controlling the illegal trade from southwest Spain. He was "putting his most trusted men in charge in every country affected by the scam," Europol says.
He has been sought since a scandal in the Republic of Ireland in March 2013 when horsemeat was found in beef burgers. Stores and companies across Europe recalled beef-ready meals, after tests found they contained horse DNA.
Investigators searched for the origin of the contamination and tracked it to the Dutch man. The investigators then determined the organization was involved in more countries than Spain.
Spain's police, as part of Operation Gazel, carried out raids in Alicante and Leon in northern Spain. They blocked or seized bank accounts and properties, and confiscated five luxury cars.
People in Italy and France are the biggest consumers of Equidae -- the "taxonomic" family of horses and related animals -- according to a report by the Guardian in 2013.