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MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Police arrested 21 people in raids on the horsemeat industry across southern France on Monday on suspicion that horses used to develop medicines were sold fraudulently for food, police and industry officials said.
Marseille public prosecutor Brice Robin said about 200 horses unfit for human consumption had been given false veterinary certificates and slaughtered for meat by an organized ring, based in the southern town of Narbonne, involving cattle traders, vets and butchers.
"There is absolutely no evidence that these animals were toxic or posed a threat to public health," he told a news conference.
A spokesman for pharmaceutical company Sanofi said some of the horses had been used to incubate antibodies to manufacture serums for everything from rabies to snake bites, and while in good health were certified as unfit for human consumption.
Spokesman Alain Bernal of the Sanofi Pasteur vaccine division said the firm was cooperating with investigators but did not know how long the fraud had been going on.
"Horses are a factory of antibodies," he said.
The horses were sold to traders suspected of falsifying veterinary documents or using veterinarian accomplices to issue false certificates so they could be used in the food chain.
A statement from the para-military gendarmerie said about 100 officers along with inspectors from the national veterinary brigade took part in dawn raids in 11 districts.
Checks were also carried out in Spain in the region of Girona because some of the suspect meat was exported, the prosecutor said.
Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said the operation stemmed from stepped-up monitoring of the industry after a French meat processing firm was at the center of a Europe-wide scandal earlier this year over mislabeled frozen meals containing horsemeat instead of beef.
The scandal, which broke in January when horse DNA was found in frozen burgers sold in Irish and British supermarkets, involved traders and abattoirs from Romania to the Netherlands.
Horsemeat has slowly fallen out of favor with consumers in France although it can still be bought at specialist butchers.
The head of the national horsemeat butchers' association, Eric Vigoureux, said the whole industry should not be held responsible for the behavior of a few rogue traders.
(This version of the story was filed to fix paragraph 4 to make clear horses were certified unfit for human consumption, not fit)
(Reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet, Gerard Bon and Natalie Huet; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Alison Williams)