Horses destined for Europe’s dinner tables are often funneled through the New Holland Auction in Lancaster County, PA.
The European Union has banned the import of horse meat, meat products and meat preparations from Mexico. The ban will take effect on January 15, 2015, according to Aikaterina Apostola, the Press and Media Officer for Health at the European Commission. Shipments of all these products that had already commenced will be accepted in the EU until March 1, 2015. Besides the impact on the Mexican abattoirs and all the businesses and employees that rely on the abattoirs, this development will have a substantial impact on the United States. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, more than 160,000 horses are shipped annually from the United States to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. The destination for most of those horses is Mexico.
Inadequate Documentation and Animal Welfare Concerns
In an email response to questions, Apostola explained that “The measure has been taken after repeated negative outcomes of the audits carried out by the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) of the Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate General in Mexico, the last of them in June 2014.” That audit revealed that corrective actions Mexican officials had previously committed to adopting had yet to be acted upon. “The 2014 audit confirms,” according to Apostola, “that the reliability of the guarantees on horse identification, traceability and medicinal treatment history remain very weak.”
The audits found numerous deficiencies in the Mexican abattoirs, and in the places where horses were collected prior to shipment to the abattoirs. The audit report enumerated these deficiencies, many of which were contested by Mexican authorities.
For one thing, horses arriving at the abattoirs from within Mexico and from the United States must have documents detailing their veterinary histories and declarations of non-use of banned substances. But the so-called “Competent Authority” (CA), which is responsible for certifying the authenticity of each animal’s documents, has no way to verify them. The auditors found substantial evidence that many horses had documentation that was unreliable.
Michael Scannell, Director of Food and Veterinary Office at the EU, explained that the issue of horse meat presents several complications for EU inspectors. “Any third party country wishing to export equine meat to the EU has to fulfill certain requirements. Horse meat isn’t a particularly large category of animal products and you don’t find many slaughterhouses that specialize in the species,” he explained at a recent European Parliament Intergroup Meeting. Further, he said, “This particular commodity is complicated by the fact that it comes from horses which are dual use. Horses are not necessarily seen as food producing animals.” Because horses enter the food chain after working as show or race horses, or pleasure or sport horses, they’ve had vastly different lives than animals that are raised specifically for their meat. And horses are routinely treated with medications and other substances that are not welcome in the food chain.
Scannell says that the import of horse meat from third party countries (non EU member countries) is contingent on those countries’ achieving EU benchmarks for animal health, food safety and requirements at point of import.
In addition to the Mexican abattoirs’ deficiencies related to unreliable documentation of horses’ veterinary histories—which goes directly to the heart of the food safety benchmark—the audit found that many horses suffered debilitating injuries during transport to the abattoirs. According to the report, “In one slaughterhouse, for a randomly chosen 10 day period in May 2014, the records showed a significant number of livers rejected due to trauma in horses of US origin.” In addition, “records in two slaughterhouses indicated that horses of US origin were regularly found dead in slaughterhouse pens due to trauma or pneumonia shortly after arrival.”
US Collection Centers for Horses Faulted
Horses bound for the abattoirs in Mexico are held at collection centers in the US, where routine veterinary checks are completed and documentation is supposed to be assembled. The audit team found that at one of these collection centers, numerous basic horse care requirements were violated. There were no contact lists for either USDA veterinarians or other veterinarians who could be called in case of an emergency. The veterinary first-aid kit on the premises was dirty and the medications therein were out of date. Two horses that had been rejected were clearly injured but were left in a paddock in full sun without veterinary care for at least two days. Horses that are rejected for export from the US to Mexico are not shipped back to their points of origin until a truck headed in that direction is available.
The EU requires humane and compassionate care of animals in the food chain. Scannell pointed out that the World Trade Organization does not consider this particular issue relevant, but EU officials reject the idea that humane treatment of animals is not as important as the physical health of animals that wind up at the abattoirs. The EU Directorate General Animal Welfare Fact Sheet is uncompromising. “Animal welfare is an issue of great importance for Europeans. The farming of animals is no longer seen as merely a means of food production, but also as an ethical concern. Increasingly, there is a public sense of responsibility for animals which are under human care. Moreover, in consumers’ minds, the well-being of farmed animals is strongly associated with the quality, and even safety, of food.”
Will the Market for Horsemeat Vanish?
Canadian abattoirs have had their own challenges with the EU inspectors. And there are reports that warnings to Canadian meat processors are forthcoming. It’s estimated that nearly 90 per cent of the horsemeat processed in Mexican abattoirs comes from US horses, and the audits that shut down that country’s horse meat business raised numerous questions about the provenance of horses in the food chain that came from Mexico.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with other humane organizations, has long advocated shuttering the abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. The celebration that accompanied the EU announcement of sanctions against Mexico begs a larger question about the US horse population. If more than 150,000 horses from the US have gone to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico, where will those horses go if the EU closes the door to horsemeat from those countries, which is actually horsemeat from the US? Horse rescues and retirement farms are already either over-filled or sinking in debt. Perhaps the closing of the Mexican abattoirs—which may be temporary—will stimulate a candid conversation among horse owners, welfare organizations and breed organizations about who is responsible for the welfare of America’s horses, and how we will honor our obligations to the horses that have spent many years of their lives working on our behalf.