EU remains idle on curbing imports of ‘blood farm’ hormones

Pregnant mares are farmed for their blood in order to extract a valuable hormone. They are often kept in atrocious conditions. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission has remained silent over a cruel but perfectly legal practice, common in South America, of rearing pregnant horses for their blood in order to harvest a hormone that is used in veterinary products imported to Europe. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The blood of pregnant mares is a valuable commodity in the pharmaceutical industry and its production in so-called ‘blood farms’, while sounding like something from a horror flick, is commonplace.

It is particularly widespread in Latin America, where gallons of blood are harvested and the PMSG hormone (Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotropin) is extracted.

PMSG is used in agriculture to increase the rate at which animals, in particular swine, can produce offspring. It is also used to synchronise when sows give birth, which increases the efficiency of agricultural production. Hormone treatments for synchronising oestrus are only prohibited in organic farming.

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In Germany, several veterinary products containing PMSG are permitted for use in pig farming, as well as in the rearing of cattle, sheep, rabbits and mink. Most of the hormones used by German farmers come from Argentina and Uruguay, according to the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL).

But animal protection activists have warned that the methods used in these blood farms often involve torturing the animals, sometimes with brute force or tasers, as the horses are nearly bled dry in the pursuit of a quick buck.

As PMSG is only produced in the early stages of gestation, mares are intensively farmed during this period and up to ten litres of blood per horse is taken every week, according to activists that cite farmhands. Horses often die in pain after a lot of suffering.

A film produced by the Animal Welfare Foundation back in 2016, using hidden camera footage, revealed the horrendous practices used on a horse farm owned by Argentinian-Uruguayian company Syntex. The end product was revealed to be available in Argentina, Japan and Europe.

The activists spent around five hours on the farm, filming hundreds of scenes of beaten and suffering animals. Farmers often use clubs and electric whips to cajole animals into the blood collection area. There are other examples of blood farms beyond that examples, including the EU-licensed Las Marquesas and La Paloma facilities. Similar cases of animal cruelty have been documented at those sites too.

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An agriculture ministry (BMEL) spokesperson told euractiv.de that “the BMEL is in contact with Uruguay and Argentina, where PMSG is primarily obtained, and is working to improve the situation on the ground”.

But the chances of Berlin being able to influence the animal protection standards of another country are “very limited”.

Even restrictions on the import and/or use of PMSG have no legal basis, so long as veterinary and animal protection requirements for the application of these preparations are respected.

German company MSD Tiergesundheit, which is a subsidiary of US pharmaceutical outfit Merck, is one firm that markets PMSG. “Blood plasma suppliers are typically in Latin America and Europe. But for the European market, MSD uses only blood plasma from European suppliers,” one of its representatives told EURACTIV.

“All of our suppliers are required to comply with all local and regional legal and regulatory requirements regarding the extraction of blood plasma, to ensure animal welfare,” the spokesperson added.

Animal welfare requirements are regularly checked by the company through private veterinarians. “If these requirements are not met by each supplier, then MSD takes the appropriate action,” the company said.

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But critics remain doubtful whether these criteria are actually met.

In a formal request made to the German government in April 2016, lawmakers in the region of Lower Saxony called on Berlin to work with other EU states on an import and usage ban that would be implemented if South American production cannot guarantee animal welfare protection.

“I think this method is completely unacceptable,” the region’s agriculture minister, Christian Meyer, said of PMSG production and use.

But the effort has failed so far at an EU level. Animal rights activists are calling on the European Commission’s health directorate (DG SANCO) to come up with strong regulations that would allow blood farms to be properly controlled.

The European Parliament reacted in April 2016 to investigations that had been carried out into how PMSG is produced in South America and called for an import ban on any of the hormone that had been the product of torture.

The proposal of the Party for the Animals that PMSG would no longer be used in Europe was supported by a majority of MEP.

“The European Parliament now doesn’t want to allow any specimens from animals that have been mistreated outside of Europe. The mistreatment of pregnant horses is completely unacceptable. In Europe and beyond,” said Dutch MEP and biologist Anja Hazekamp.

The European Commission, however, which must now work on the Parliament’s proposal and impose an import ban on PMSG and other problematic livestock products, has yet to get started. The Commission had not replied to a request for comment by EURACTIV at time of publishing.

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