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Health fears raised over American horsemeat imports 

EuroPolitics | Brian Beary in Washington | Tuesday 02 April 2013

images-21An animal welfare group is alleging that unsafe horsemeat is ending up on European dinner plates due to lax controls by North American and EU authorities. The Humane Society is trying to raise awareness among EU lawmakers and officials about the complex supply chain in which horses from the United States are transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, with their meat then being exported to the EU. This poses a threat to consumer health, the Humane Society’s Cheryl Jacobson told Europolitics, because some 90% of horses in the US are treated with phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug whose use the EU bans for all animals intended for human consumption. In addition, as the US does not require records to be kept of the medical treatments horses receive, the only way to know they have not been given banned substances is to test 100% of consignments but this does not happen, Jacobson said.

The issue is already on the European Commission’s radar. Audits conducted by the Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office in 2011 and 2012 in Canada and Mexico concluded that the monitoring and controls systems did not meet EU food safety norms. Even though the Commission requires 100% of consignments from Mexico to be tested, Jacobson noted that these consignments are only tested for growth-promoting substances, not for phenylbutazone. Meanwhile, authorities in Canada test for phenylbutazone but they only test about 20% of consignments, she added. An official from Canada’s Food Inspection Agency told Europolitics that it had a “zero tolerance” policy for phenylbutazone. The official added that since 2010 Canada requires operators in the horse slaughter industry to provide a record of all vaccinations and medications given to each horse in the previous six months – both for domestic and imported horses.

In recent weeks, the Humane Society has been stepping up its campaign. Representatives from the organization have met with officials from 20 of the 27 EU member states, Jacobson said. While the member states with the most amount of trade in horsemeat, notably Belgium, France and Italy, were sympathetic to their concerns, she said that they were reluctant to raise the issue at the Council of Ministers as they felt the onus was on EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, Tonio Borg, to take action. Because the EU horsemeat market is much smaller than other sectors like beef, poultry and pork, this issue has gotten less attention, Jacobson said. According to Eurostat, €93.9 million of horsemeat was imported into the EU in 2011. The country that exported the most horsemeat to the EU was Argentina (€29 million), while Canada and Mexico were the second and third biggest exporters, with €26.5m and €17.1m respectively. Horsemeat produced from US horses is thought to account for around 20% of the horsemeat consumed in the EU.


The reason no horsemeat is exported directly from the US to the EU is because Congress in 2007 imposed ade facto ban on slaughtering horses inside the US. This led to a surge in exports of live horses from the US to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. However, in 2012, Congress allowed that ban to lapse. One company that wants to open a new slaughter facility in the US has already applied to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a permit. A USDA spokeswoman told Europolitics that while their agency is legally obliged to process that application, it would prefer if Congress re-introduced the ban. A bill to this effect was introduced to Congress – both in the House and Senate – on 12 March 2013. Regardless of whether or not Congress renews the ban, the issue will not go away, Jacobson said, because it is impossible to trace what substances US horses have been treated with. Unlike in the EU where each horse must have a ‘passport’ that records its medical history, no such requirement exists in the US. Jacobson explained that this is because there is no tradition of rearing horses specifically for human consumption there as Americans rarely eat horsemeat. The US horses whose meat is exported to the EU are typically racehorses, pets and show horses, which are sold at auctions.

This has undoubtedly been a memorable few months for the EU when it comes to horsemeat. In January and February 2013, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that various batches of meat that had been labelled as beef was in fact horsemeat. Commissioner Borg is due to present a new package on animal and plant health aimed at tightening controls in the meat industry and imposing stiffer fines for falsely labeling food. He is also considering whether to extend ‘country of origin’ labelling requirements beyond fresh meat to cover processed meat products too.

Meanwhile, on the trade front, EU negotiators are gearing up to begin talks this summer on a free trade agreement with the US, all the while trying to wrap up talks with Canada on a free trade pact. Food safety concerns in the agro-trade are likely to feature prominently in the EU-US negotiations. The transatlantic partners already have longstanding disputes to resolve stemming from divergent food safety rules in the poultry, beef and pork sectors. Should the concerns about the horsemeat trade start to gain traction, it could become yet another thorny agro-food safety issue for negotiators to have to handle.