THERE has been “a lot of soul-searching” in the Department of Agriculture since last week’s RTÉ Investigates programme which exposed serious equine welfare issues at Ireland’s only licensed horse abattoir.

The Shannonside Foods Ltd plant in Straffan, Co Kildare, which was heavily featured in the RTE report, has since been shut down by the Department and on Thursday a senior official from the Department appeared before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the matter.

Michael Sheahan, the Department’s deputy chief veterinary officer, said the “horrific” footage in the programme “was one of the most sickening things I’ve ever seen” and he was repeatedly asked how the Department’s veterinary representatives at the facility had failed to suspect or find any wrongdoing on their weekly visits to the plant over many years.

Sheahan said that Department officials have “done a lot of soul-searching about should we have known what was happening in that shed next door?” He added: “Without the excellent work done by RTÉ, to be honest, we would not have known that this was happening.”

A number of TDs pressed Sheahan on how the Department could have been unaware of the apparent illegal activities taking place within yards of the abattoir part of the Straffan plant.

Sheahan explained that the Department’s veterinary officers were only present on slaughter days and it appeared that the alleged abuse of animals was taking place a day earlier in a closed shed.

“We have a veterinary presence and technical officers present on the day when slaughter happens,” Sheahan said. “What was shown on the programme did not happen within the slaughter plant. For some people that is a technicality. The horrific footage happened on the farm beside the plant.

“Within the slaughter plant, whether people like to hear it or not, our experience dealing with this plant is that the horses were in good condition.

“The shed is empty, other than on the day before slaughter, as I understand it. Horses arrive onto the farm next door. They’re sorted through this shed where we saw the horrific stuff happening, and then the following morning, they move into the lairage of the slaughter plant, where our vet is on-site.”

Sheahan insisted that no horses had been presented for slaughter in poor condition. “We’ve never had horses presented in recent years that were sick, emaciated or lame. I specifically asked our vet in great detail about that.

“He said occasionally he’s had a horse presented that, as a racing vet, he wouldn’t allow it to race in that it wouldn’t be 100% sound, but in good condition every other way. I’m pretty categoric on that.”

Sheahan told the Committee that the Department had received five complaints relating to horse welfare on Shannonside Foods Ltd’s property since 2018 and that each one of these was investigated but it was felt no action was required. The fact that a person involved in running the facility had a previous conviction for an equine welfare offence was also insufficient reason for the Department to step in, Sheahan said. It was the court’s prerogative whether or not to ban people from working with animals and, in this case, the court had not done so, he explained.

He said they were welfare concerns about lame and thin horses, but they were not upheld.

The Department received one complaint in 2018, one in 2019, two in 2021 and one in 2023.