Thousands of horses went missing from Europe in the past few years, and a recent report indicates they might have been sold for food. Getty Images

Europe's 2008 financial crisis may have resulted in some 50,000 horses to be sold and unwittingly eaten across the United Kingdom, the Telegraph reported Saturday. Food safety expert Chris Elliot gave a speech recently speculating families who couldn't afford to keep their horses likely turned them over to gangs running a black market for horsemeat.

"The idea that 50,000 horses could just disappear may seem incredible to some, but the scale at which some of these gangs can operate is huge,” Elliot said, according to Farmers Weekly. "Wherever there is money to be made -- and the sums involved in food fraud are in the billions -- criminals will find a way."

European authorities uncovered a widespread scandal in 2013 after food inspectors found horsemeat in frozen beef hamburgers, lasagnas and spaghetti sauces carried by stores like Tesco and Aldi. The food fraud discovery triggered a series of recalls and uncertainty over the source of several products, some of which also contained pork, BBC News reported.

The British government tapped Elliot to investigate, and his findings were not surprising, food policy professor Tim Lang told the Telegraph. "The scale might raise eyebrows," he said. "But there are a lot of horses and ponies out there, expensive to run both for pets and betting. And borders are permeable."

Time reported one of the major players in the horsemeat scandal, Dutch trader Willy Selten, was sent to jail in April for his involvement. Selten was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for forging invoices and labels that indicated 330 tons of meat was 100 percent beef when in reality it was a mixture of beef and horsemeat.

American authorities recently carried out its largest animal cruelty bust in history in Loxahatchee, Florida, where owners of three slaughterhouses were found to be selling their meat illegally as well as torturing the animals.