The Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, said he witnessed "distressing images" in Wednesday's evening's RTÉ programme which focussed on welfare issues in Ireland's equine industry and he says his Department is already investigating some of the activities shown in the report.

The one-hour programme looked into the practice of horses having their identities changed before either being exported for sale or slaughtered to enter the food chain.

While racehorses were featured, the investigation mainly dealt with non-thoroughbreds being exported to continental Europe but the most shocking scenes were filmed inside the Shannonside Foods abattoir in Straffan, Co Kildare. Footage was secretly recorded of horses being repeatedly struck with a pipe and paddles before being slaughtered, and it appeared that some horses had new microchips implanted moments before being presented for slaughter, presumably so they could be cleared by Department officials to enter the food chain.

A statement issued immediately after the broadcast by the Department said: "The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has noted the broadcast of the RTÉ Investigates programme “Horses: Making a Killing”, which aired tonight Wednesday 12 June.

The Department takes the matters of equine welfare and the integrity of the food chain very seriously. The welfare of horses is protected by legislation, placing responsibility on owners and those who have animals in their possession or under their control to ensure the animals welfare. This legislation also ensures that appropriate enforcement action is taken by the relevant competent authority where breaches or shortcomings are identified.

"As recognised in the programme for government, robust traceability is essential to ensuring equine welfare and therefore improving equine traceability has been and continues to be a priority for the Department. Any reports of welfare or traceability issues received by the Department, are acted upon and investigated as appropriate."

The statement quoted Minister McConalogue as saying: "I have watched the RTÉ Investigates programme this evening, which included some distressing images. I am taking this matter extremely seriously. My Department has already commenced an investigation in recent weeks involving the supply of equines for slaughter, with aspects of the ongoing investigation related to some of the broadcast activities. Any new allegations or evidence of malpractice or allegations of illegal activity in the equine industry that this programme has brought to light will be thoroughly investigated by my Department."

The Department statement added: "It is Department policy to investigate all allegations of illegal or criminal behaviour and prepare files for prosecution where appropriate."

Horse Racing Ireland

Just before midnight, Horse Racing Ireland issued a statement saying it was "deeply shocked and appalled" by the documentary's revelations.

The statement said: "The Board, management and staff of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) are deeply shocked and appalled by the content of the RTÉ Investigates documentary broadcast on RTÉ 1 tonight.

"The criminal behaviour depicted in the RTÉ documentary is disgusting and is not the experience of the vast majority of the 30,000 people who make their livelihood in the horse racing and breeding industry in Ireland.

"HRI has zero tolerance for mistreatment of horses in any circumstance and criminal and regulatory sanction must be imposed on anyone found to have behaved in an illegal way towards horses.

"Equine safety and care is HRI’s top priority, and this year HRI will invest €16.1 million in welfare and integrity services. The thoroughbred horse is enshrined in Irish and EU law. Significant legal and regulatory checks and balances are in place for thoroughbred horses from birth through their racing career and life cycle.

"HRI will review the issues raised in the RTÉ documentary and will actively support any Department of Agriculture or Garda investigation, and urge anyone with information about mistreatment of horses to report it to An Garda Síochána."

A statement released by Horse Sport Ireland after the programme said: "Horse Sport Ireland unequivocally condemns the practices surrounding the treatment and slaughter of horses, as outlined in this evening’s RTÉ Investigates documentary.

"Horses hold a special place in the Irish nation’s collective heart, providing pleasure as pets and leisure horses, in therapeutic practices, on racetracks, and in arenas around the country. There is absolutely no place in society for the mistreatment of horses, or any other animals, nor is there for the use of animals for any criminal intent."