December 2013 | Enforcement of EU Rules Banning Tainted Horsemeat Stalls
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Enforcement of EU Rules Banning Tainted Horsemeat Stalls

December 2013 - Suzanne Bush

New Holland AuctionDraft horses wait their turn at the New Holland Auction, a link in the food chain that the European Union is trying to better control. While new regulations restrict horses treated with drugs like bute from entering the food chain, enforcement is complicated and weak.

There is a profitable, but declining, market for horsemeat in Europe, and much of the horsemeat consumed there comes from Canada and the United States. US and Canadian horses enter the food chain by way of the Canadian abattoirs. It used to be a simple transaction. Horses sold at auctions in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the US were transported to Canada and sold to the meat processors. But all that changed when the European Union initiated a program to ensure the integrity of the food system.

In trying to bring order to the sprawling food safety program adopted by the EU, legislators created thousands of regulations. The regulations are intended to ensure the overarching goal of food safety “from farm to fork.” Thus the most mundane aspects of food—listing of ingredients—to the profoundly complicated—complete veterinary histories for all animals in the food chain—are bound together in what has proved to be an enforcement nightmare. It’s not that anyone opposes food safety. But recent events have revealed that even the most well-intentioned laws can be drowned by conflicting priorities, greed, bureaucratic stumbling, and outright subversion.

Papers, Please
To comply with EU regulations, Canadian authorities require all horses imported for slaughter to have a passport, called an Equine Information Document (EID). The EID, which is supposed to be completed by the owner of the horse, includes a veterinary history. What could possibly go wrong with that? Plenty, it seems.

For one thing, the EU regulations stipulate that certain drugs are so toxic that any horse treated with them is banned forever from the food chain. One of those drugs is Phenylbutazone, commonly known as Bute—and commonly given to horses to treat an array of problems. In addition, horses sold at Pennsylvania’s auctions are not always brought to the auction by their owners. The veterinary histories of many of these horses are not comprehensive. The person hauling the horses to Canada—the kill buyer—is the one who usually is responsible for verifying the details of the EID. Recently a random test of horsemeat exported to Europe from Canada was found to contain traces of Bute. This discovery precipitated several events, including a one-day shutdown of the equine pipeline from the US to Canada last year.

Canada’s Star Newspaper investigated the way EIDs are validated, and found that the documents are often rife with errors and incomplete. The investigation concluded that horses that should be excluded from the food system can easily slip through because of lax oversight of the EIDs at the abattoirs.

EU authorities’ enforcement of regulations regarding import of horsemeat from Canada had been somewhat relaxed, and a promised deadline of July 2013 for more rigorous enforcement of rules passed quietly. But it did not go unnoticed.

According to the EU Press and Media Office, efforts to close the gaps that resulted in the contaminated horsemeat entering the food chain are a priority. “The EU is currently reviewing an action plan provided by the Canadian authorities on official oversight negotiated with the US regarding equine to be exported to Canada for slaughter,” the press office explained. “The action plan particularly has to address weaknesses earlier spotted by the Commission Inspection service on the identification and registration” of horses coming from the US.

How Effective is the System?
Alex Atamanenko, a Member of Parliament from British Columbia, has proposed legislation that would ban the import of horses for slaughter.  He is concerned about tainted horsemeat, and about the integrity of the EID system currently monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). He has questioned the CFIA about Bute, and about how EIDs are verified at Canadian abattoirs. “According to the CFIA regulations,” he says, “any time an animal is given Bute even once in its lifetime, it’s banned from the food system.” He believes that at least 80 per cent of horses have received Bute at least once. “They (CFIA) said they check for this in muscle tissue, whereas in fact there has been research [in the US] that has shown that it’s the kidneys that need to be checked.”

Regardless of the methods used to detect banned substances, though, Atamanenko says that “ultimately the CFIA is responsible for any meat that goes into the food chain. Unfortunately what’s happening in agricultural sectors is that more and more power is given to industry to self-regulate. The government is stepping back.”

As for the veracity of the EIDs, he is not convinced that the system is foolproof. “An ID can be falsified,” he says. And although there are supposedly mechanisms in place prevent it, “it’s happening, so obviously the system isn’t picking it up.”

Atamanenko provided a transcript of a 2011 hearing at which he questioned the CFIA about how the inspection system worked to determine whether an individual horse was deemed acceptable for the food chain. “All equine owners intending to sell animals directly or indirectly to Canadian meat processors provide an EID which reports all vaccines, medications or any occurrence of illness within six months of slaughter.” CFIA representatives further noted that “each EID is verified by the plant operator and systematically reviewed by a CFIA veterinarian.”

Covert Horsemeat Arrives with the Lasagna
Early this year food inspectors in Europe discovered traces of horsemeat in packages of meat labeled ground beef. Soon horsemeat was found in everything from meatballs to lasagna, and a full blown scandal erupted. It became apparent that widespread fraud had resulted in the mislabeling of numerous products containing what was supposed to be beef. The extent of the fraud, along with the perpetrators, is still unclear. But, in the 11 months since the scandal began, major food wholesalers, supermarkets and even Burger King have been forced to withdraw products as inspectors unearthed more and more products containing horsemeat.

The EU system of labeling all processed foods with comprehensive lists of ingredients as well as countries of origin seemed to be unraveling by the day. In February, less than a month after the first whiff of this scandal was noticed, the Member States of the EU endorsed a plan proposed by Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg. The plan included EU-wide testing of meat products, to determine the scope of the fraud. In addition to seeking to identify beef products contaminated with horsemeat, the plan called for testing samples of horsemeat for traces of Bute.

Commissioner Borg’s office did not return several requests for comment.

A Conflagration of Compromises
If it were an automobile, the mammoth food system overseen by EU commissioners would, on its own, be an epically complicated vehicle to drive safely. Think about an owner’s manual written in many different languages, and a list of operating instructions with more topics than Wikipedia. Then check out the safety features that are, in many cases, apparently unexamined.

The food safety system was constructed on a framework in which traceability was one of the key features. Consumers were guaranteed that the beef they purchased at the butcher or the supermarket could be traced back to the farm where the cow was born. They believed that there was a complete veterinary history for every animal that entered the food chain, and that any animal slaughtered for food would never have been treated with certain drugs, including Bute, Clenbuterol and other pharmaceuticals that are commonly used on horses.

Alex Atamanenko said that the Canadian government was stepping back, and permitting more and more industries to “self-regulate.” The Star reported that Canada’s meat processing industry exports $90 million worth of horsemeat to the EU annually. In that context, how is the integrity of the border between self-interest and self-regulation maintained? Can the guarantee of traceability be reliable if the EIDs are not?

The EU is working with Canadian and US officials to come up with policies that will achieve the goals of the traceability program, and ensure the EU promise of food safety from farm to fork. It’s unclear when those new policies will take effect and how they will affect the equine industry in the US. And it’s not clear yet whether Atamanenko’s proposed law banning the import of horses for slaughter will gain any support. What is clear, though, is that the EU is now stumbling through a crisis of confidence brought about by an inspection system that promised more than it could deliver.  Once they recover their balance, it’s possible the Commissioners will take a more aggressive approach to traceability.