Fact-check Malta: Was a butcher caught killing sick dogs and cats and selling them as sausage meat?

Rumours that a butcher on the island of Gozo was killing sick dogs and cats and selling them to customers as sausages spread like wildfire on Friday 21 June, causing panic and disgust in equal measure.

They claimed that several people had fallen sick and were admitted to hospital over the weekend after eating sausages sold by the butcher, with health inspectors allegedly later uncovering evidence of the misdeed during an inspection. The butcher, the rumours went, was getting hold of the sick animals from an unnamed local animal sanctuary.

The rumours had been bubbling for several weeks but went viral on Friday morning when a post about the story by popular Facebook personality Gerald Fenech went viral. Fenech is a well-known figure in Malta. He rose to prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic, when he would publish daily figures of Covid cases, often charging his followers a €5 subscription fee.

He has since morphed into a self-styled journalist, reporting on broader social and political issues. However, Fenech has frequently been caught peddling misinformation over various topics, from false claims about Malta’s population to fake warnings about tsunami warnings following last year’s earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria.

This Facebook post on the morning of Friday 21 June quickly went viral.

But the rumour was seemingly confirmed later in the day by a local animal welfare NGO in a (since-deleted) post on Facebook, saying that the NGO “can verify that this is not a fictional story” and that “hospitalisations occurred”, but stopping short of publishing the butcher’s name for fear of legal repercussions.

The rumours led to wild speculation over the identity of the butcher and the locality of their shop. Initial reports claimed that the butcher was located in the Gozitan village of Nadur, but this gradually shifted to the town of Xagħra. Several online sleuths quickly put a name to the butcher, identifying the alleged culprit and publishing photos of him on their social media platform.

Several news portals followed suit. One portal ran a live stream from outside the butcher’s shop, only to find the shop vacant, leading to unsubstantiated suggestions that while the butcher’s shop may no longer be operational, he was selling the sausages on the side.

Several local news portals reported the story throughout the day.

The rumours continued to spread throughout the day, often leading to vicious reactions from online commenters, some of which called on authorities to “lock (the butcher) up in prison and throw away the key”. Others went even further, describing the butcher as a monster and calling for the death penalty to be reinstated.

The rumours continued to grow throughout the day.

But, by the late afternoon, it became apparent that the entire story had been fabricated and that there was no indication that anybody was selling sick dogs and cats as sausage meat, much less that people had been hospitalised as a result.

Inspections come up empty-handed

Contacted by Times of Malta, a police spokesperson confirmed that they were first alerted to the rumours the previous week but had not received any reports over the matter. “Nor have we been contacted by another government entity to assist them in an investigation,” the spokesperson said.

In cases such as this, the spokesperson explained, an initial investigation would be carried out by the health inspectorate which, upon finding a suspicion of wrongdoing would raise the red flag with police.

By the Friday evening, health authorities issued a statement saying that a health inspection found “no evidence” of any wrongdoing and that there were no cases of foodborne illnesses linked to the man.

In its statement, the health ministry said that officials within the Environmental Health Directorate had carried out inspections at the alleged butcher outlets but found they were not in operation.

A team made up of Police, the Veterinary Services Directorate and the Environmental Health Directorate then carried out an inspection on Friday afternoon at various sites in Gozo in relation to the alleged butcher.

“No evidence or equipment related to the production of Maltese type sausage was found,” the ministry said. “No cases of foodborne illness were reported to the health authorities which were linked to the alleged butcher.”

On Saturday morning, public health superintendent Charmaine Gauci was interviewed on a popular local radio show, confirming that authorities found no evidence of wrongdoing and that local hospitals had not recorded any cases of food poisoning that could be traced back to the butcher in question.

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry urged the public to avoid making false reports, saying that they cast “the important work of Maltese and Gozitan Farmers in a negative light”.

When contacted by Times of Malta, the Association of Abandoned Animals, whose Facebook post had seemingly confirmed the story, were unable to provide any evidence of butcher’s wrongdoing, saying simply that they were relying on second-hand accounts that led them to believe that the story was true. By the evening, the organisation had deleted its post.

These are ‘malicious falsehoods’: family members

Times of Malta has chosen not to name the butcher in question.

But members of the butcher’s family who spoke to Times of Malta strongly denied the rumours, describing them as “malicious falsehoods”.

“This is absolutely untrue. All our family spent our lives around animals and loves animals, so we would never do anything like this,” they said.

They confirmed that the rumours have been circulating for several weeks, but say they have no idea how or why they started. What’s more, they say, the shop is no longer operational.

“The butcher shop has been shut for over a decade, so how could we have done the things they are talking about?”

Attempts to contact the butcher himself were unsuccessful, while calls to the butcher’s landline number indicate that the number no longer exists.

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Fact Check, Health, Society, Uncategorized

Author(s): Neville Borg

Originally published here.