Horsemeat scandal: are 70,000 horses missing and are they in our food?

12 February 2013

"A SHOCKING 70,000 horses are "unaccounted for" in Northern Ireland, sparking fears some may have ended up in food."

The Sun, 12 February 2013

As Tesco today became the latest food producer to withdraw "beef" meals after they were revealed to actually contain more meat from horses than from cattle, a number of papers warned that this may not mark the end of the crisis.

The Sun and the Daily Mail were two of the papers to carry the claim that some 70,000 horses in Northern Ireland alone were 'missing', and that some of these might have found their way into supermarket food products.

So where does this claim come from?

Both the Sun and the Mail source the figure to Labour, and indeed the Party's Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh did make the assertion in a Commons debate yesterday. According to Ms Creagh, the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA):

"says that there are currently 70,000 horses unaccounted for in Northern Ireland."

We got in contact with the USPCA, and found that actually, this statistic had been misunderstood by the Shadow Environment Secretary.

Firstly, the figure isn't for Northern Ireland alone, but actually encompasses all 32 counties of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Secondly, it isn't quite true to say that it reflects the number of horses 'unaccounted for', but rather it is the USPCA's estimate of the total number of horses that have been slaughtered over a five year period since the recession. This would mean that around 14,000 horses are killed in Northern and the Republic of Ireland every year.

A spokesperson for the USPCA explained to Full Fact that while it was difficult to pin down a firm figure that would "stand up in a court of law", the USPCA and their colleagues south of the border made the estimate based on their experience of the equine markets. He said the figure would include both captive and 'wild' horses.

According to the Guardian, Mary Creagh corrected her claim in the Commons today after she was challenged about it by the DUP's Ian Paisley.

We hope that the Sun and the Daily Mail will now follow suit so that their readers won't be misinformed about what this figure actually tells us.

UPDATE (22 February 2013)

Within a few hours of contacting the Daily Mail about the misinformation, they amended their article to reflect the facts. It wasn't a significant error but the Mail was right to update its piece to reflect Labour's own correction. This is exactly the kind of practice we'd like to see more often from newspapers and the Mail deserve thanks for promptly stepping up to the mark.

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