Canadian lawmakers recently proposed a bill amending the country’s food safety laws, which, if passed, would terminate all equine slaughter for human consumption. The bill would prohibit both the import and transport of horses bound for slaughter. Further, all horsemeat products would be excluded from import, transport or export, since it would be impossible to ensure that the meat is free of all traces of certain banned substances such as Phenylbutazone, Banamine and others.
Even if the bill is defeated, there are numerous roadblocks confronting the equine slaughter business—any one of which could force the end of the controversial enterprise.
On July 31 the European Union (EU) began enforcing long-standing rules regarding importation of horsemeat for human consumption. The regulations focus on traceability of meat, for one thing. The goal is to be able to track every animal in the food chain from its birth to the slaughterhouse. But knowing where the animal has been is only part of the picture. Each animal must also have its own history, detailing all medical treatments. The constellation of regulations meant to insure safety of food “from farm to fork” in the nations subscribing to the EU regulations began months ago to radically alter the landscape for auction-bound horses in the United States.
Canada, one of the portals through which American horses travel to processing plants, began rewriting their rules early this year. In January, Canadian lawmakers revised the country’s food safety regulations in an effort to bring the nation’s food safety system into compliance with EU regulations. The new provisions require an Equine Identification Document (EID) for every horse imported to Canada or transported within Canada for slaughter. Each horse’s unique EID would include a history of any illnesses, a summary of all medications administered to the horse in the six months immediately prior to slaughter, and a signed declaration that the horse had never received any of the substances that are absolutely banned from the food chain. These substances include Phenylbutazone (Bute), Acepromazine, Banamine and numerous other medications commonly given to horses.
Animal Welfare Part of the Equation
A web of legislation, food handling rules and political maneuvering, though, cannot obscure the very real impact of activists’ dogged pursuit of a way to end the practice of slaughtering horses for food.
EU regulations stipulate that since animals are sentient beings, processors must pay attention to their welfare, even as the animals are being slaughtered, says Laura Allen, executive director of the Animal Law Coalition. And this has been a powerful weapon for those who oppose the slaughter of horses.
“EU representatives have gone to Mexico, where they’ve seen lots of footage of horrific slaughter of horses, and how cruel it is,” she says. In the past, she says, people in Belgium or France might have enjoyed horsemeat from the US, imagining that the horses had enjoyed happy lives eating grass on the vast plains. Graphic videos showing conditions in processing plants have perhaps done more to reduce consumption of horsemeat than any laws or regulations could do. “It has become a really big issue recently, and it’s one reason the EU is stepping up enforcement.”
Some equine advocates fear that ending the auction-to-abattoir pipeline will result in more problems for horses. They believe auctions provide necessary safety valves for owners who no longer want, need or have the means to care for their horses. Without them, the horses will be more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
Allen disagrees, and suggests that the auction houses and so-called kill buyers play different roles—roles that abet people who over-breed horses or persist in acquiring horses they can’t use or afford. “I don’t think one has anything to do with the other at all,” Allen says. “Slaughter creates a secondary, or salvage market where people can over-breed horses. You take that away, you stop a lot of the over-breeding. Slaughter is driven by a demand for horsemeat,” she says. And demand for horsemeat has been declining for the past couple of years. “The number of US horses slaughtered didn’t drop after the last slaughterhouse was closed in 2007,” she says. “What’s happened is the demand for horsemeat has dropped. It’s down 20 per cent in Canada and 19 per cent in Mexico.”
Beyond Talking Points
Allen is an attorney with an animal-focused practice. She is passionate about protecting animals but pragmatic enough to recognize that laws and regulations are mediocre substitutes for personal accountability insofar as real protection of animals is concerned. One talking point revered by advocates of reopening abattoirs in the United States for processing horsemeat is this: unwanted horses are better off being slaughtered than being starved or neglected to death. Allen believes this is a false premise. “People who are pro slaughter continue to make this argument that this has to be an option for unwanted horses. Slaughter shouldn’t be an answer.”
She wants people to face the reality in which the issues of equine care should rest with the people who breed, purchase and care for horses. “When you think about it 920,000 horses are euthanized in the US each year,” she says. An additional 80,000 to 100,000 were being sent out of this country for slaughter and consumption. She believes that the population of horses exported for slaughter could easily be absorbed into the population that is euthanized in the US annually.
Recently there have been legislators who have tried to reopen abattoirs in the US for processing horsemeat. They contend that it is a viable business, and that our inspection and meat handling process could meet international standards. Legislators like Representative Sue Wallis of Wyoming believe that the US could elevate the standard for processing horsemeat, and she has proposed development of a slaughterhouse in Wyoming. It would require Congressional approval of funding for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors for the meat processed at the facility.
“State laws that were introduced this year failed. The efforts in Tennessee, Missouri and Indiana failed,” Allen says. “People realize these are not really businesses. They’re very grisly practices that don’t bring anything to the community.”
Allen believes the momentum has shifted on this issue, though, and that there is little enthusiasm among lawmakers for reopening US slaughterhouses. “I think we’re moving towards banning the slaughter of American horses altogether,” she says. In addition, she points out that Congress has refused to fund inspections of horsemeat. These would be required in order to export horsemeat to other countries. Regardless of whether or not abattoirs are reopened in the US, it appears that the global market for horsemeat is shrinking.