New Zealand is experiencing an increase in castle rustling and illegal abattoirs, with black-market meat selling for half the price of legally processed cuts. The problem is partially due to fewer rural dwellers as a result of corporations buying up land, and also because of demand from people on low incomes for cheaper meat. Unfortunately, many of the illegal butchering sites are highly inadequate with no hanging facilities, no hygiene standards and no questions asked about where the animals being butchered originated.
Backyard butchers are becoming more of a problem according to Gary Orr, a compliance manager for the Ministry of primary industries. He told the Guardian: “Times are tough for some parts of our population. [..] When the price of blackmarket meat is half of what you’d normally pay, that can be very tempting.”
Some of the thefts of farm animals are what Orr calls small-scale opportunistic crimes, a half-dozen sheep here or a few cows there. Others are obviously the work of large professional gangs, like the theft of 500 dairy cows from Canterbury in August and the 1,400 lambs that disappeared from Whanganui in November. Despite the large amount of people and trucks needed for such large-scale operations, neither the authorities nor local farmers have managed to catch any gang in the act.
Most of the stolen animals are processed in the open, with no way of managing offal or keeping carcasses off the ground. Orr described one site his team discovered, which was processing stolen meat for hundreds of customers: “There were dead animals, offal and blood everywhere, spread out on an exposed concrete slab with people walking through it and birds flying through. None of the carcasses were hung, they were just lying on the open slab after being skinned and gutted, completely in contact with everything. And there was no hand-washing, no cleaning of knives or equipment. It was horrific, like a charnel house.”
Rick Powdrell, rural security spokesman for Federated Farmers, blames changes in farming practise for increased levels of rural crime: “When you have a lot of animals in a big dairying operation, the owners can be quite removed from the day-to-day management of the property, they are basically office workers. And with rural communities so decimated now there are no longer the eyes and ears on the ground to watch out for suspicious behaviour.” Powdrell says that 25% of New Zealand's farmers have been victims of rustling while three quarters were not covered by insurance and 60% did not bother to report the crime, lacking confidence that police would tackle rural crime.
Alasdair Macmillan a senior police sergeant is investigating stock rustling and would like to see more of these crimes reported: “We think the majority of stock thefts – when it’s large scale, in the hundreds – is going towards blackmarket meat operations, and we definitely take that seriously because organised crime groups sell meat like any other commodity; the same as drugs, the same as other stolen goods. When pinching 12 cows can net you a quick NZ$12,000, that’s an easy way to make cash fast.”
Some farmers have started patrolling their areas with guns at night time, but Macmillan warned against this approach. He said: “When your property is repeatedly hit it can be very frustrating, particularly if you feel like it isn’t a priority for the police. But that approach is extremely dangerous, and it is putting people’s lives at risk.” Meanwhile the farmer who lost 1,400 lambs to thieves in Whanganui told his local paper: “It totally mentally debilitates you. Constantly making sure that everything’s all right. I’m a mentally tough person, most farmers are. But I’m human also. I’m still struggling with it.”