The EU’s other horsemeat scandal arrives via Canada

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Red meat

The horse meat trade in the EU is extremely lucrative, but is dependent on a reservoir of cheap North American horses, and comes with health risks and animal welfare concerns. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission should swiftly suspend the import of Canadian horsemeat to the EU given serious traceability and food safety concerns, warns Dr Joanna Swabe.

Dr Joanna Swabe is the Executive Director for Humane Society International/Europe.

As the horsemeat fraud scandal fades in the collective memory of EU consumers and politicians alike, another horsemeat scandal refuses to go away despite continued health risks posed to EU consumers and concerns over animal welfare.

Each year, tens of thousands of horses from the US, where there is a minimal regulatory burden with regard to veterinary medical recordkeeping, are transported to Canada for slaughter for human consumption. These animals have not been raised for food production, but have been instead kept for companionship, recreation or sport. They endure long stretches of travel to the slaughterhouse without adequate veterinary care, food or water. 

Their meat is then exported primarily to France and Belgium to be sold and distributed across the EU. It is a lucrative trade in horsemeat that revolves around a reservoir of cheap horses and comes with health risks and animal welfare concerns.

Last spring, a long awaited Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) audit of the Canadian horsemeat industry once again confirmed Humane Society International/Europe’s serious concerns about the reliability of the controls over both Canadian and US horses destined for slaughter and export to the EU. Previous FVO audits had highlighted serious veterinary recordkeeping deficits leading us to repeatedly warn the Commission that it cannot be guaranteed that horses have not been treated with substances banned for use in food animals. 

In light of the most recent FVO findings, MEPs have asked the Commission how they plan to prevent the import and placing on the EU market of Canadian horsemeat that does not meet EU food safety standards. In its response to a recent cross-party Parliamentary Question, the Commission noted that it would be amending the import certificate, achieving an equivalence of requirements with regard to veterinary treatment and establishing a mandatory residency of six months for horses in the country of slaughter.

The Commission’s proposed measures are fundamentally flawed and will do nothing whatsoever to address the food safety and traceability concerns raised by the FVO. In sum, the Commission seeks to bring the requirements related to veterinary treatment of horses in line with Canada’s residue monitoring plan. However, up to 70% of horses slaughtered in Canada originate from the US, where there is no residue monitoring plan for horses and no mandatory lifetime record-keeping for veterinary treatments. 

Humane Society International/Europe has identified 55 substances routinely administered to US horses, which are strictly prohibited in the EU for use in food animals, such as anabolic steroids, antipsychotics and central nervous system stimulants. If these substances were administered to horses in the EU, they would be permanently excluded from the EU food chain. 

The introduction of a mandatory six month residency requirement for US horses in Canada will not prevent meat from horses, which have been treated with these substances, from entering the EU food chain and posing potential health risks to EU consumers.

The proposed residency requirement could also cause significant animal health and welfare problems. As extensively documented by local animal protection groups, horses on existing feedlots are deprived of basic and adequate veterinary care and kept in poor conditions – with no shelter and low quality feed – which cannot satisfy their needs. The high number of animals also creates competition for access to food and water and disrupts hierarchical herd structures.

Furthermore, keeping tens of thousands of horses on Canadian feedlots each year is certainly not conducive to the control of equine disease, especially in a country where certain regions are not free from the highly contagious Equine Infectious Anaemia.

And given that the FVO has already determined that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has no overview of the existing Canadian feedlots, which Canadian authority will be responsible to ensure that horses imported from the US will, in practice, be kept for six months before slaughter?

The Commission should really suspend the import of Canadian horsemeat, in line with the precedent it set last December for Mexican horsemeat – also largely derived from horses of US origin. Instead the Commission seems to be continuing to flog a dead horse by trying to achieve the impossible. This can only be of detriment to horses and EU consumers.

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