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Horse meat in the spotlight

The slaughter of horses is among the most controversial of agricultural debates.

Those who support it argue equine slaughter is not only legal, regulated and humane, but a necessary way to manage excess horses and keep the horse industry healthy.

Those who oppose it contend – usually very emotionally – that equine slaughter is an inhumane and horrifying end for beautiful animals that should rightfully be respected as companions or pets. Veteran NDP Member of Parliament Alex Atamanenko is attempting to bring that debate to the forefront of Canadian politics. In early April, he will bring Bill C571 to second reading at the House of Commons in hopes of ending the slaughter of all horses in Canada except those specifically raised for meat.

Beef producers might assume this bill is a left wing, bleeding heart crusade motivated by animal rights activists; a worrisome signal that Canada is on a slippery anti-meat industry slope. Not so, says Atamanenko, who argues his bill is actually motivated in large part by a desire to keep Canada’s agriculture industry healthy and globally competitive.

“Let’s put all of the emotion aside. This is a food safety issue,” he says. “I think it’s dangerous to the agriculture industry if we don’t do anything. It tarnishes the whole industry if we allow meat into the system that is prohibited by our own guidelines.”

Canada exports about 14,000 metric tonnes of horse meat each year, mostly to Europe and Japan. Currently, five plants – two in Quebec, two in Alberta, and a new, small scale facility in BC – slaughter a total of about 82,000 horses in Canada. The majority of slaughter-ready horses are not Canadian in origin; rather they are transported north for slaughter from the United States (where slaughter was shut down in 2006 after the US Congress prohibited the use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for meat).

As every cattle producer knows, Canada’s meat industry is tightly regulated. Traceability and food safety are two of the very highest priorities across meat commodities. Yet, the rules are hazier and more open to fraudulence when it comes to slaughter horses, says Atamanenko.

In Canada, horses are raised for a wide variety of reasons: for pleasure mounts, for the track, as breeding stock, and for pharmaceutical production (Premarin, a popular hormone replacement therapy for women, is derived from pregnant mares’ urine), among other reasons. Very few horses, however, are raised specifically for human consumption. Whereas cattle, hogs and poultry are vaccinated and medicated according to tightly regulated standards because the animals are, from the beginning, raised to end up on someone’s fork, Canadian horses are not managed throughout their lives as meat animals. As such, they are routinely – and entirely legally – treated with a wide variety of medications strictly prohibited in any meat destined for human consumption.

“Racehorses are walking pharmacies,” argues Atamanenko. “About 80 per cent of racehorses in North America at some point get drugs that are prohibited in any meat going for human consumption. There is no withdrawal period on these drugs. According to Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, if at any point in time these drugs are administered, that horse is no longer fit for human consumption.”

Among these commonly used drugs, he says, are nitrofurazone, which has been linked to cancer in humans, and phenylbutazone (“bute”), a drug linked to bone marrow disease.

Despite the fact that these and other drugs are prohibited from entering the food system, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does not require a lifetime tracking of a horse’s medical history. Instead, since 2010, horses destined for slaughter in Canada must be accompanied by an ‘equine information document’ (EID): a record of all vaccinations and medications given in the previous six months. According to Atamanenko, these passports depend solely on the honour system and are routinely falsified. (In Europe, horses must be accompanied by a lifetime health passport.)

In addition to the EIDs, the CFIA reports it “also has a monitoring program to randomly test meat for the presence of pesticides, environmental contaminants and drug residues. This monitoring program is based on international scientific standards as outlined by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. The testing is conducted at a frequency to detect trends in drug use violations. When the CFIA detects results that are of concern, sampling frequency can be increased.”

Atamanenko believes this random testing is not sufficient to keep consumers safe. To date, only one case of exported meat tainted with bute and clenbuterol, another drug banned in the EU, has been found (Belgium, July of 2012). That said, not all carcasses are tested, not all drugs are tested for, and the withdrawal period on most drugs is unclear. And, though it must be noted that the US and Canadian meat inspection systems are different, research done at a US University also supports Atamanenko’s position.

According to a report written by researchers from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in MA, USA and published in 2010 in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, “Horses are not raised as food animals in the United States, and mechanisms to ensure the removal of horses treated with banned substances from the food chain are inadequate at best… The permissive allowance of such horsemeat used for human consumption poses a serious public health risk.”

The United Horsemen, a US based non-profit charitable and educational group that supports horse slaughter, argues that prohibited drugs are not nearly the concern Atamanenko fears they are. As South Dakota horse breeder Jean Zeller writes in an editorial for United Horsemen, “I despise those that spread mistruths… (It is a) myth that all the horses that end up in the killer have bute (a carcinogenic) in their systems. We don’t, as a rule, take our horses to the vet, and rarely do I use bute in my horses. I do keep it on hand, but I can tell you that most all the horses we send, have never ever had a dose of bute. While I can’t speak for other ranchers, I’d venture to say that many of the horses they send are also bute free.”

Canada’s meat industry is branded very heavily as safe and conforming to international safety requirements. If our international customers determine that our horse meat does not live up to the same strict record keeping and standards we demand of our other meat exports, could our marketplace credibility falter? Could our inability to ensure birth to slaughter record-keeping in the horse meat industry have negative spin off effects on our other meat exports, including beef?

After a long history of being heckled, hindered and opposed by animal rights activists, beef producers would be justified in having a very negative kneejerk reaction to anything anti-meat crusaders stand for. That said, the status quo may not be good enough, and demanding similar standards for all meat animals for the good of the entire industry might at least be worth consideration.

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