Horses wait to be auctioned at the New Holland Sales Stable.
Each year thousands of horses are sold at auctions in the United States and shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The abattoirs process the horsemeat for consumers in Europe and Japan. The auctions have provided options for people who can no longer afford to keep their horses, or for people whose horses are no longer useful to them. It’s an unfortunate reality. But here’s another slice of reality that is bound to cause major disruptions in the pipeline that takes horses from auctions to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. The European Union (EU) requires traceability for all foods imported for human consumption in member nations. This is not new. However, beginning in July, 2013 the traceability requirement for horsemeat will be enforced.
Traceability from Farm to Fork Is Paramount
Traceability. It’s the core principle in the EU program aimed at food safety “from farm to fork,” and it will require extensive documentation for every horse. The so-called Equine Identification Document (EID) does not leave much room for interpretation. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website explaining the EID and how it is to be used, “the EID must contain both written and visual identification as well as medical history and a signed declaration by the owner of the equine. The owner declaration under part 3 of the EID must bear the original signature of the owner.”
The CFIA requires an extensive veterinary history for each horse bound for slaughter. There is a list of all pharmaceuticals that are permitted, along with specific withdrawal periods. For instance, if a horse was wormed using Ivermectin on October 1, 2012, the horse could not have been processed until October 29, 2012 because the CFIA requires a 28-day withdrawal period for Ivermectin. There are also some commonly-used pharmaceuticals, such as Clenbuterol and Phenylbutazone (bute) that are absolutely prohibited. The meat from any horse treated with these drugs can never enter the food system. Bute is one of the most widely-used equine drugs in the US; it’s likely that there are fewer US horses that have never been treated with bute than there are horses that can sing the National Anthem.
Already inspectors from the EU have been on the ground in Canada, looking for assurance that the traceability requirements are being enforced. In the past several months horsemeat that was contaminated with substances that are explicitly banned by the EU has been shipped from Canada, and identified via inspections in Europe.
Either coincidentally or through serendipity, in October several Canadian abattoirs were briefly closed to trucks hauling horses from the US. This one-day shutdown was variously attributed to bureaucratic slip-ups in France or Canada, misunderstandings, or even fantasies. “What I can tell you is the (CFIA) has not issued any directives,” Guy Gravelle said. Gravelle is a media relations officer at CFIA, who said he knew nothing about the incident. “As far as I’m aware,” he added, “meat products are safe to eat.”
Haulers bringing in truckloads of horses from US auctions may be able to meet CFIA requirements through a group declaration of the suitability of the animals in their control. Although this process is less exacting than the individual EID certification, it still requires the individual responsible for the lot to certify the veterinary history of the animals. And the processing plants are required to maintain records that will effectively trace any animal back to a specific shipment or lot during or after processing. When the processing plants were closed briefly in October, the haulers who were turned away wound up with trucks full of horses with nowhere to go. It was obviously not a good situation for the horses, even as it was little more than an inconvenience to the haulers.
In addition to the rigorous equine identification plan the EU has established to ensure safety of the horsemeat processed in Canadian and Mexican abattoirs, there is an added component to EU regulations: humane treatment of animals destined for slaughter. Built into the framework of food safety rules for all EU member states is the requirement that animals are housed, fed and treated humanely.
Humane treatment of the horses that wind up in this predicament should be top of mind for anyone who has even a passing interest in horses. But it isn’t. It’s clear the landscape for auction-bound horses in the US is going to shift dramatically as a result of the more meticulous enforcement of food safety regulations in the EU. This is bad news for thousands of horses.
Horse Slaughter in US Ended, but Threat to Horses Remains
Activists’ celebrations in 2007 were short-lived. To some, it looked like a victory when the last plant to process horsemeat closed that year; but it turned into a disaster for slaughter-bound horses sold at auctions in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Processing plants in Mexico and Canada never closed. So horses sold for meat wound up on crowded trucks for protracted road trips, during which they were often subjected to suffocating heat, dehydration and other dangers. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that more than 138,000 horses are shipped from the US to processing plants in Mexico and Canada every year.
Processing plants in the US operated under rules intended to ensure some level of humane treatment for animals, and US Department of Agriculture inspectors and veterinarians added a level of protection for the horses, even as their ultimate fates had been sealed at the auction houses. The protections afforded animals in US processing plants is not universally available.
The quandary that arose in 2007 was neither new nor uncomplicated. The closure of US processing plants made it much easier to see that overbreeding of horses in the US, economic factors and changing demographics have led to catastrophic outcomes for thousands of horses.
Too Many Horses, Too Few Owners
The horse auctions provide a means for horse owners to get rid of horses they no longer want, can’t afford or cannot use. Not all the horses sold at auctions are sent to slaughter, but as the GAO survey found, thousands do wind up at the slaughter house. If their estimates are correct, at least half a million horses have gone to Canada or Mexico for slaughter since the last processing plant closed in 2007.
This is a data point that people in the horse industry cannot evade. Horses are bred for speed, or for specific conformation traits, or for a particular sport. When they cannot compete any longer, or when their conformation does not meet expectations, or when they are not fast enough to race, what happens to those horses? There are not enough potential owners, horse rescues or retirement farms for the number of horses that flood the market every year.
The horse auctions, often culminating in a ride to Mexico or Canada, have provided a means to reduce the number of unwanted horses. With the EU stepping up enforcement of traceability requirements, the US population of unwanted horses will face terrible consequences.
No Place to Go
Lori McCutcheon, who operates Last Chance Ranch, a horse rescue in Quakertown, PA is worried about what will happen when the pipeline to Canada and Mexico is either shut down or traffic is severely reduced as a result of the EU restrictions. “What’s going to happen?” she asks, “Neglect and starvation. If there is no place for horses to go, people are going to start turning these horses loose. People will walk away and let them starve.”
She says that stray horses are already taxing the resources of rescue and humane organizations all over the country. “I was talking to someone from Texas the other day and she said their biggest problem now is stray horses.” She says that her phone never stops. “We get people calling us every day, saying they can’t afford their horses or use them anymore.” When people are so economically strapped that they can’t even afford to have their horse euthanized, McCutcheon says they’ll just walk away. “It’s going to be a huge disaster,” she says. “Not that I’m for slaughter. But if you can’t keep your horse it’s better to euthanize them humanely than to let them starve to death.”
She points out that a lot of the problem arises from people who simply don’t take responsibility for their own actions, and believes that breeders need to be held accountable. Stray horses, like dogs and cats that are abandoned by their owners, are often killed by cars, or die horribly from starvation or infections.
Once the EU enforcement of traceability starts to limit the number of horses that can be processed in Canada and Mexico, it will be impossible to ignore the problem of unwanted horses in this country, or to pretend that overbreeding has no consequences. Laws that prohibit the slaughter of horses don’t end the problem. As one equine rescue operator pointed out, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a horse.