In 2014, after years of pressure from Europe’s Humane Society International (HSI), the European Union banned the import of horse meat shipped from Mexican abattoirs. Dr. Joanna Swabe, the HSI/Europe Executive Director, says that her organization finally convinced European Commissioners that conditions in the Mexican abattoirs were problematic at best. Augmenting the HSI’s case were numerous traceability and food safety concerns uncovered in an audit conducted by the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO).
Her organization has made the same arguments about the Canadian abattoirs, another destination for horses sold at auction in the United States. But the Canadian horse meat pipeline to the EU remains open. Despite Canada’s seeming immunity to the strictures placed on Mexico, Swabe and others remain convinced that it’s only a matter of time until horse meat exports from Canada will also be banned.
Safety from Farm to Fork
The EU Commission on Food Safety has developed standards that are meant to guarantee consumers in EU countries that food products they buy are safe. Where meat products are concerned, the EU standards require comprehensive data on any animal that enters the food chain, including the veterinary history of every animal, from its birth to the time it is processed for food. There are certain pharmaceuticals considered so toxic that any animal treated with them is forever banned from the food chain. Phenylbutazone, or Bute, is one of those drugs. Hundreds of thousands of horses in the United States are routinely treated with Bute. Since horses, unlike beef cattle and pigs, are not raised for food, it’s not unusual for them to have been treated differently by veterinarians than animals that are destined for the food chain.
Horses that are brought to Canada for processing in the abattoirs must have health certificates that detail their veterinary histories, even the last dates the horses were wormed or treated with antibiotics. Anyone who has ever witnessed the livestock auctions where horses are sold to meat buyers can understand that there’s a chasm between the EU requirements and the realities of these auctions.
A Plan for Canada
Swabe responded via email to several questions about continued efforts to ban horse meat from Canadian abattoirs. “The most recent Food and Veterinary (FVO) findings conclude that there are no guarantees that horses slaughtered in Canada for export to the EU have not been treated with substances, such as [those that promote] hormonal growth,” she explained. She said such substances are not permitted to be used in food animals in the EU.
She said that members of the European Parliament have raised questions to the EU commissioners about how they would protect European consumers from the possible contamination of horse meat from Canadian abattoirs. But the pressure on the commissioners goes even further. “In addition,” Swabe said, “HSI/Europe met with the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety to hand deliver a petition signed by more than 25,000 EU citizens” urging a suspension of horse meat imports from those non-EU countries that do not comply with EU food safety standards.
Swabe said that the European Commission recently announced measures seeking to address deficiencies in Canada’s abattoirs. “These include: amending the import certificate, achieving an equivalence of requirements with regard to veterinary treatments in Canada; and establishing a mandatory residency of six months for horses in the country of slaughter.” HSI/Europe concluded that these measures are “fundamentally flawed.”
She said that HSI/Europe and colleagues from HSI/Canada have been meeting with the Chief Veterinary Office and others in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), to present evidence. “So far, no concrete actions seem to have been taken by the CFIA regarding these significant concerns,” she said. She believes that only intense pressure from the EU requiring changes will result in change.
But HSI/Canada representatives did meet with several Members of the Canadian Parliament. Schwabe says that “In previous sessions, a bill was introduced to strengthen the traceability system of the horse slaughter industry. “Unfortunately it was defeated by just a handful of votes,” she said. Among supporters of the bill were Liberal MPs, a party, which she happily noted, “is in power now.” She and her Canadian colleagues are hopeful that a new bill will be proposed soon.
“in addition,” Swabe said “campaigners with HSI/Canada have recently submitted to the CFIA a formal complaint against the horse slaughter facility Viande Richelieu, requesting an investigation into the company’s claims concerning the source, quality and safety of its horse meat products.” Viande Richelieu is one of the primary abattoirs accepting horses from US auctions.
Questions about the Treatment of Horses Bound for Canada
Swabe wants to hold EU officials accountable for the way horses are treated at the Canadian abattoirs and before their arrival. “Since the EU protections for consumers include protections for animals used for food,” she explained, “I would like to know if any EU officials are aware of the conditions of many horses entering the abattoirs in Canada from the US.” She wants to know if anyone has actually reviewed the documentation of the conditions in which the horses were brought to Canada. “In the most recent audit,” she said “the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) reported that cases were seen where horses had been rejected for animal welfare reasons.”
Regardless of the specifications in the law, though, Swabe said that public opinion may be a persuasive factor in the effort to stop the export of horse meat from Canada. “According to a recent Eurobarometer survey…93 per cent of the 27,672 respondents agree that imported products from outside the EU should respect the same animal welfare standards as those applied in the EU.”
EU officials may be especially sensitive to these public opinion polls since the recent vote among United Kingdom citizens demanding an exit from the EU. Combined with the more sympathetic mien of the newly-elected Liberal majority in Canada, the EU citizens’ desire for more humane policies may finally tip the scales in favor of the HSI/Europe’s desire to close the Canadian horse meat pipeline to Europe.