BRUSSELS––The European Commission on December 8, 2014 suspended a program that spot-checked horse meat exported from Mexico for contamination with banned drugs.
Effective on January 15, 2015, “Such suspension results in a ban of the import of horse meat, meat preparations, and meat products from Mexico,” European Commission press officer for health matters Aikaterini Apostola said in a prepared statement.
The suspension responds to two years of European anxiety about suspect horse meat turning up in mislabeled prepared foods. Unscrupulous meat suppliers are believed to have substituted horse meat for beef because horse meat is cheaper.
The ongoing scandal had already undercut the belief, widespread in the U.S. horse industry, that a sizable and lucrative European market exists for horse meat, lost when Congress cut off the USDA budget for inspecting horse slaughterhouses in 2007.
The U.S. House of Representatives on December 11, 2014 approved a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that included language continuing the prohibition of use of federal funds to inspect horse slaughter plants. The bill is expected to be passed by the U.S. Senate as well, and then to be swiftly signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Mexican slaughterhouses flunked audits
Continued Apostola, “The measure has been taken after repeated negative outcomes of the audits carried out by the Food & Veterinary Office of the Commission’s Health & Consumers Directorate General in Mexico, the last of them in June 2014. This last audit also showed that many of the corrective actions that Mexico committed to take following previous audits were not yet taken,” Apostola said, and “confirms that the reliability of the guarantees on horse identification, traceability, and medicinal treatment history remain very weak. Due to these problems in the official controls, it cannot be excluded that unauthorized substances might be used in horses slaughtered in Mexico for the export of their meat to the EU.”
The suspension of horse meat imports could be lifted, Apostola indicated, but added that “A future Food & Veterinary Office audit which has a satisfactory outcome will be necessary.”
Though the suspension was not imposed due to humane concerns, relevant humane concerns have also been under discussion by the European Commission.
The EU announcement of the impending suspension came just over a week after European Commission Food & Veterinary Office director Michael Scannell on November 30, 2014 told a European Parliament Intergroup meeting in Brussels that “In general, the worst contraventions we know [of EU regulations involving the horse meat traffic] are in relation to transport” of live horses to the Mexican slaughterhouses.
“By way of example,” Scannell said, “we will publish a report in the next number of weeks in relation to Mexico where we saw animals who arrived dead from the United States or non-ambulatory, i.e., they were not even able to stand.
“It is quite a lucrative trade,” Scannell continued, speaking more to the conditions of the past several decades than to those of the past few years, “and the establishments concerned know that they are under an awful lot of pressure, and are being very closely watched. One of things they can control relatively well is slaughtering conditions, and by and large what we see is acceptable.”
Noting similar problems involving the transport of horses to slaughter in Canada, Scannell hinted that the European Commission is close to warning Canada to improve procedures or face a suspension of trade in horsemeat similar to the suspension of trade from Mexico.
“In both cases,” Scannell said, “this will make it a lot more difficult ––impossible in the case of Mexico, difficult in the case of Canada––to continue importing horses from the United States for subsequent export of horse meat to the European Union.”
Exulted Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “The announcement could prove to be an earthquake for the North American horse slaughter industry, since Belgium, France, Italy, and other EU nations are major consumers.”
Pointed out Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mike Markarian, “According to the audit by the European Commission Food & Veterinary Office, 87% of the horses slaughtered in Mexico for export to the EU came from the United States. The auditors reported that ‘horses of U.S. origin were regularly found dead in slaughterhouse pens due to trauma or pneumonia shortly after arrival,’ and that many rejected horses had livers indicating trauma and injury during transport.
“Even though the European Commission requires lifetime veterinary records for EU horses intended for food, EU regulators have allowed third parties, such as Canada and Mexico, to meet a lower food safety standard,” Markarian charged. “They submit affidavits stating that horses have not been given drugs prohibited in the EU, and cover the horses’ veterinary histories for only six months. But the audit found that even this watered-down food safety requirement is virtually an impossible standard to meet. The auditors ‘found very many affidavits which were invalid or of questionable validity, but were nonetheless accepted,’ and flatly noted that “the requirement that [horses] be identified and traceable for a period of at least 180 days prior to dispatch for slaughter cannot be respected.
“Because American horses are not raised for human consumption,” Markarian continued, “they are given drugs and medications throughout their lifetimes that are never intended for the food system––ranging from common painkillers such as ‘bute” for treating ailing or lame horses,” to more exotic and often illegal concoctions sometimes used in the horse racing industry.
Horse meat in the beef
Twenty-eight European Union member states plus non-members Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland submitted samples of beef products to the European Commission Food & Veterinary Office between April and June 2014. Samples from 16 nations reportedly tested positive for having horse meat among the beef, though just 0.61% of the 2,622 samples submitted in 2014 included horse meat, down from 4.6% in similar tests done in 2013.
The 112th Congress is almost certain to close without passing the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, a bill to end exports of U.S. horses to slaughter, introduced in March 2013 as HR 1094/S 541, with 159 House cosponsors and 27 cosponsors in the Senate. With several strong supporters of the legislation retiring, including Representatives George Miller of California and Jim Moran of Virginia, and another, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, having been defeated in her November 2014 bid for re-election, similar legislation is unlikely to advance in the 113th Congress.
Perhaps the highest hurdle for any legislation against exporting horses to slaughter is the horse industry contention that without some way to slaughter horses for human consumption, the industry has no way to dispose of old, injured, or simply surplus stock. With the support of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the horse industry has for the past eight years fought any attempt to restrict exports of live horses unless the same legislation allows resumption of horse slaughter in the U.S.
A further difficult for any legislation forbidding a type of commerce with Canada and Mexico that is legal within the U.S., such as selling horses, is almost certain to be taken before a North American Free Trade Agreement tribunal. A NAFTA tribunal would very likely strike it down.
Falling European demand
Meanwhile, European demand for horsemeat has imploded. More than a year ago, on October 3, 2013, Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney testified to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Committee on Agriculture that only 6,500 horses had been slaughtered in Ireland during the first nine months of 2013, down from 24,000 in 2012.
Coveney attributed the reduction to his administration having “really tightened up the rules…which has resulted in a reduction of the number of factories slaughtering horses and also in a very, very tight system now in terms of micro-chipping, identification and passports and so on.”
But only four of the 28 European Union nations, according to Eurostat, now knowingly consume even as much as a pound of horsemeat per person per year––Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, all at just over two pounds, and Luxembourg, at about 1.3 pounds. France, which once consumed the most horsemeat per capita, now consumes half as much as Luxembourg. Only four other EU member nations knowingly consume any discernable amount of horse meat.
Horse meat for animal consumption
No restrictions, meanwhile, in any way inhibit the U.S. horse industry from killing horses for animal consumption. The only restriction on horse slaughter to feed animals is that the horses may not be killed by pentobarbital injection, which would make their flesh unsafe for other animals to eat.
But horses are rarely killed by pentobarbital: the required dose would be about 100 times the average dose for a dog and several hundred times the average dose for a cat.
Most often, when horses are euthanized due to incurable illness or injury, the instrument of dispatch is a firearm or a captive bolt gun, the same instrument used in a slaughterhouse. Since a captive bolt gun can be used safely almost anywhere, horses killed for animal food need not be transported alive. Renderers routinely collect the carcasses of horses dispatched by firearm or captive bolt gun, along with the carcasses of other livestock to be processed for animal consumption.
Data collected in 2009 by The Unwanted Horse Coalition indicated that the average cost of euthanizing and disposing of a horse was $385.
The horses sold to slaughter in 2006, the last full year of legal horse slaughter for human consumption in the U.S., yielded an average meat value of $619, according to the General Accounting Office. Less the shares going to transporters, auction yards, and slaughterhouses, the average return to people selling horses to be killed appears to have been under $250.
The difference to horse owners between euthanizing horses and selling them to slaughter was therefore less than the typical cost of a new saddle, ranging between $600 and $1,000.
Of the $39 billion per year revenue earned by the U.S. horse industry in 2006, just $65 million came from exporting horsemeat––about 1.6%. Depressed betting on a weak Kentucky Derby field can cost the industry more in any given year than the loss of this income. The Kentucky Derby alone generates 10 times more economic activity per year than horse slaughter has in any year since 1990.