By Suzanne Bush
Beginning next year European Union (EU) countries will begin rigorous enforcement of food-safety regulations concerning horsemeat for human consumption. The regulations, aimed at ensuring food safety through traceability from farm to fork, ban meat tainted by drugs commonly given to horses, including antibiotics, wormers and bute.
While horsemeat is not sold in the US, it is exported from Canada and Mexico to the EU and to Japan, where it is considered a delicacy. Many of the horses that are processed in Canadian and Mexican slaughter houses—abattoirs—come from the US, where currently there are no plants that process horsemeat.
EU countries use a passport system for slaughter animals that documents the animal's pharmacological history. All countries that export food animals to the EU are required to have systems in place that mirror those in the EU.
Shelly Sawhook, President of the American Horse Defense Fund and a board member of the Equine Welfare Alliance, says that the regulations have been on the books for some time, but will be enforced beginning next year. "In the EU, any animal going for slaughter, they have a passport," she says. "Every time the vet checks the animal, gives it an antibiotic or anything else, it's marked in their passport. That way they can be assured that the animal doesn't have anything that can harm people. That has been on the books for years."
Medicines equines are routinely treated with have withdrawal periods – the time it takes residue clear their systems -- some of which are known and some of which have not been studied. EU residue-control requirements are non-negotiable and rigorously enforced.
But certain medications are considered unsafe under all circumstances, and horses treated with them will be banned from the EU food chain. Among them are certain commonly used classes of antibiotics, called chloramphenicols and nitroimidazoles, and growth hormones.
Dr. John Simms, a trustee of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA), and the equine specialist on the state's Animal Health and Diagnostic Commission (AHDC) says that the EU regulations are similar to American regulations for animals produced for food, although in some cases they are more exclusive.
"I think that they're going to deal with people that can supply them with a product that is safe. I think the EU is going to be very particular about that. There are a lot of things we use here that the EU doesn't tolerate," he says, explaining that it doesn't mean there's less safety here. The EU, for instance, bans the use of growth-promoting hormones in animals destined for the food chain. In addition, EU mandates labeling of genetically modified organisms, such as corn.
Simms says the problem with many of the drugs given to horses is that nobody—including the manufacturers—really knows what is safe, or how long residue will remain. "Each one has a withdrawal time," which varies. "Some are labeled but most of them say not intended for use in horses that are going for consumption. Period. Because they don't know what that answer is."
He says that when horsemeat was exported from American abattoirs to the EU, food safety was paramount. "When horsemeat came from the US it was treated the same as other meat products. They go through a very excellent process for food safety here, including doing kidney swabs (on carcasses) and looking for injection sites," that are more apparent when the animal's hide has been removed. These processes would detect the presence of substances in the meat that could be harmful to consumers.
One possibility is that horses could be held in feedlots until the drugs clear from their systems, which will add to the cost of the final product and raise other issues, such as the standard of humane care. The Canadian abattoirs are reluctant to discuss how these regulations may impact sales to the EU. The Unwanted Horse Coalition had no comment, as they said they had not studied the regulatory changes.
Meanwhile, people who, due to tough economic times are unable to care for their horses, and unwilling to ask veterinarians to put the horses down have, according to news reports, been abandoning them. One report, an April, 2009 New York Times article, cited horses found wandering in forests and starving in bare fields, and said that police in states across the country were then reporting increasing incidents of abandoned horses.
Organizations like the Equine Welfare Alliance dispute those claims. They contend that anecdotes of abuse arising from economic hardship are extrapolated to conclusions for which data just do not exist.
The Unwanted Horse Coalition, on the other hand, recently released findings from a study based on 27,000 respondents. That study, the first attempt to quantify the unwanted horse problem, indicated that respondents believe equine abuse is on the rise, partly as a result of economic problems.
According to the study, "the problem of unwanted horses is not only perceived to be increasing significantly, its detrimental effects are being noticed and felt across the country." The study also found that an overwhelming percentage of respondents believes that abuse and neglect of horses is increasing.
Sawhook dismisses reports of increased abandonment. "Every year there's a minor amount of horses that are abandoned. That has not increased in this country since the slaughter houses were closed." She says the reports are propaganda, perpetrated by individuals and groups pushing their own agendas.
Individuals associated with the Equine Welfare Alliance and opposed to horse slaughter have compiled extensive files of correspondence from every state about incidents of equine abandonment. They say that they can find no evidence that these incidents have been increasing as dramatically as media reports indicate. Rather, they claim that the reports fuel efforts to reopen plants that would process horsemeat.
In their 2007 study titled "Deleting the Fiction: Abandoned Horses," Terry Torrence, John Holland and Valerie James-Patton followed up on media reports of abandoned horses. They contacted the relevant authorities in each case, to find out whether, in fact, media reports were accurate. Their lengthy report contains reprints of all correspondence between the researchers and the authorities. The researchers could find no corroboration by Park Service employees, local police, elected officials, veterinarians, etc., and concluded that somehow anecdotes became fact through repetition and amplification in the media.
For example, the researchers cited a 2007 Associated Press report that claimed Kentucky was overrun with abandoned horses. The AP story detailed sightings of large herds of abandoned horses roaming around reclaimed strip mines. They contacted the governor of Kentucky, U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield, of Kentucky's First District, the Kentucky Animal Care and Control Association, and the Kentucky State Police, and none could verify any of the information contained in the AP story.
Until 2007, there US abattoirs processed horses, exporting their meat to Europe and Japan. Many of the horses were purchased at auctions like the one in New Holland. All US plants were closed due to strong public sentiment against horse slaughter, but that did not stop the processing of horsemeat. Estimates vary about how many horses from the US are sent to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico every year, but there are probably at least 75,000.
Using reports of the rising number of abandoned horses as a rationale, Montana, Missouri, North and South Dakota are considering reopening plants that would process horsemeat.
The issue of US abattoirs and EU regulations are now converging, but it's unclear what the impact will be on equines. Sawhook believes that the impact will be minimal. Instead, she believes that horses' destinies are already written by the characters of their owners. "I see it as more of a neutral thing. People who are cruel enough to abuse or starve a horse were always cruel enough to abuse and starve a horse, and they always will be. The more humane folks are going to find an option. They'll find a buyer, they'll find a rescue." Abusers, she believes, are bad actors independent of economic forces.
Nonetheless, Sawhook says that it will be difficult to actually reopen a slaughter house where horsemeat will be processed. "The US Congress has spoken very clearly. The USDA cannot provide inspectors for the horsemeat plants." Without inspections, and the regulatory framework the EU requires, the meat cannot be sold in Europe.
The dispute about whose data are correct only makes the debate about how to ensure the well-being of horses more contentious. Just as recent discourse in the US surrounding health care reform has showcased more anger than facts, equine welfare discussions have historically been hampered by the lack of quantifiable research and an abundance of emotion. For now, it's unclear how the EU regulations will affect the number of horses sent to Canadian and Mexican abattoirs. If they cannot establish a source and ownership history for each horse, it's difficult to see how the abattoirs can comply with EU requirements for residue-control plans.
The routine treatment of horses with dewormers, antibiotics and other substances would seem to exclude most of the US horse population from export to the EU. There is not a traditional industry of breeding horses for their meat, so there is no way to ensure the EU's goal of traceability from farm to fork. All of this would seem to imply that the current model of importing horses from the US for slaughter would no longer be economically viable.
And then there is the possibility of reopening plants in the US. It would require an act of Congress to change current rules about funding USDA inspectors. Given the intense emotions surrounding this issue, horse slaughter in this country will be off the table for the foreseeable future.