22,000 unwanted Irish horses end up on the dining table
Nearly 22,000 unwanted Irish horses have been slaughtered for meat over the past three years - while a further 4,000 abandoned horses have been put to sleep.
Figures from the Department of Agriculture reveal 6,573 horses were slaughtered for human consumption last year, with another 7,748 killed in 2017 and 7,618 slaughtered in 2016.
The bulk of the horsemeat produced here is destined for customers in Belgium, France and Italy.
The figures show the number of the animals being put down by local authorities has nearly halved from a high of 1,744 in 2016 to 973 last year.
While diners in Ireland and Britain tend to be horrified at the thought of eating horse flesh, one billion people do so all over the world.
At the height of the recession in 2011, just over 24,000 unwanted horses were slaughtered for meat here but the number plummeted last year to just over a third of that.
Many thoroughbreds who failed to make it on the racing track ended up in abattoirs at the start of this decade, when the Irish economy began to slide.
Most of the carcasses are exported to Europe, where they are eaten as burgers, steaks or even roasts.
Eurostat figures show that more than 105,400kg of meat from horses, asses, mules and hinnies was exported to non-EU countries in 2018.
This was a slight decrease on the previous year.
Horsemeat is commonly found on dining tables in China, Russia, Central Asia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Belgium and Argentina.
Globally, consumption has risen since 1990.
Dr Jo Swabe, senior director of public affairs at Humane Society International Europe, said there were concerns about the slaughter of horses across Europe.
"Horses are particularly sensitive 'flight' animals, who can easily panic and spook if they can't escape danger and so the industrialised slaughter process itself can be especially cruel for them," she said.
"Their instinctive desire to escape causes them to thrash their heads frantically, making it difficult to effectively stun them prior to slaughter."
She said the same ethical concerns also applied to other animals.
"Around nine billion pigs, chickens, cows and others are slaughtered each year for food across the EU," Dr Swabe added.
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said: "The Control of Horses Act 1996 provides powers to local authorities to deal with stray and abandoned horses and for the designation, by each local authority via by-laws that are appropriate to the respective functional areas, of control areas in which horses cannot be kept without a licence."