CITRUS PARK — Jorge Ortega ran his slaughterhouse on a vacant lot off Cain Road in Citrus Park, behind a quiet cul-de-sac of $200,000 homes.
The activity did not go unnoticed. An animal-welfare group went undercover to see what he was doing. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigated, as did the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eventually, he was arrested, charged with three violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In May, he pleaded guilty to selling misbranded, uninspected meat and improperly slaughtering swine. He faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison on each charge.
Whether Ortega was running an inhumane, unhealthy livestock-slaughtering operation or simply providing a low-cost service to poor people is up for interpretation, as is the question of how widespread such operations are in Hillsborough County.
Richard Couto, who runs a Miami-based nonprofit called Animal Recovery Mission, said Ortega ran the slaughter farm, called Jorge’s Farm, for months after entering the industry by traveling between other illegal slaughter operations and killing livestock for farmers.
“He was the one guy that really had his hand on the pulse of the illegal slaughter industry in Hillsborough County,” Couto said.
Multiple Hillsborough residents approached Couto in 2011 and asked him to do something about horse slaughters in the Tampa area, he said.
He went undercover and infiltrated the operations of some of the “worst animal killers in the country,” including Ortega’s, he said. Couto told Hillsborough deputies that horses were being brought into the county by the truckload to be slaughtered and sold for human consumption.
Couto’s accounts spurred an investigation by the sheriff’s office and USDA.
But the 17-month investigation uncovered only Ortega’s operation, deputies said. The sheriff’s office said Couto was never able to produce the video or photographs of illegal slaughter farms that he claimed to possess.
“It’s kind of strange they would question someone’s credibility, but at the same time they make arrests on that person’s investigation,” Couto said.
Sgt. Ed Raburn, head of the HCSO Agricultural Crimes Unit, said the sheriff’s office only investigates animal cruelty and neglect.
“If they’re operating a commercial facility where they shouldn’t be, we’ll refer them to the appropriate agency,” he said.
In Ortega’s case, that was the USDA.
Ortega was arrested after he sold horse meat to a USDA investigator in February 2012. He was entered into a pretrial intervention program.
Video evidence led to later charges, which were filed after he shot a pig without first rendering it insensitive to pain, and butchered the meat on a floor covered in trash and filth before packaging the meat in an unlabeled garbage bag and selling it, court records show.
Ortega could not be reached for comment.
It is not uncommon for people to raise livestock with the intention of eating it, authorities say.
Many people, particularly of Hispanic backgrounds, raise goats or cows and slaughter them on their property to distribute the meat between family and friends, Raburn said. Selling the meat without the proper licenses or inspections is a crime.
“You can’t do that,” Raburn said. “They want you to buy your meat at Publix, not off some dude’s dirty workbench.”
Horse meat is illegal to sell at all. Although the consumption of horse meat is common in other countries, it is illegal in the United States. Horse owners are allowed to slaughter their animals and eat them themselves if they choose as long as the horse is killed humanely. But it is illegal to sell the meat to someone else, inspected or not.
The four-detective Agricultural Crimes unit investigates between five and 15 animal cruelty calls every week and impounds more than 1,000 livestock every year, Raburn said. The team hasn’t found another illegal slaughterhouse in six or seven months, he said.
Illegal slaughterhouses are not, as Couto implied, an epidemic in Hillsborough County, Raburn said. Backyard slaughter farms do exist but can be challenging to prosecute, as it’s often difficult to prove animal cruelty, he said. If someone is running an illegal commercial operation, the charges are handled administratively by code enforcement or the USDA.
In Florida, a person can slaughter his or her livestock practically any way they choose so long as the animal is killed “humanely” and rendered insensitive to pain.
Although that is distasteful to many people, it is not against the law, Raburn said.
Most of the calls he gets involving slaughter operations are from people who are opposed to killing animals at all, he said. And he knows that in some cases there is nothing he can do to quell their anger.
“There’s a lot of blood and it’s ugly and people who don’t understand don’t like it because it’s gross,” Raburn said. “But it doesn’t necessarily fall outside the bounds of the Humane Slaughter Act.”