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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Future of Horse Slaughter and its Potential Aftermath

Update:  Horse slaughter has resumed.  The reasons for the barring of American horses on Friday is still unknown, but the fact remains, come July of 2013, horse slaughter of horses from America will either come to an end or greatly reduced.  For a horse to be legally presented for slaughter it will need to be in effect quarantined for six months, to document it is free of certain medications during this period; if a horse gets sick and all the others in that lot get treated with a prohibited substance, the clock gets reset and the six months begin again.  In addition, any horses treated with phenylbutazone and similar medications will be permanently banned from slaughter.  The end result is the cost of providing EU-compliant horse meat will go up significnatly,  meaning the prices paid for horses at auction will be reduced greatly.  Therefore, the majority of this story remains factual.

By now, you may have heard that the Canadian and Mexican slaughter plants which ship horse meat for human consumption to European Union countries are presently refusing American horses.  What does this mean to the horse racing industry in general, the standardbred industry in particular?  Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know I am anti-horse slaughter, so you may be disappointed by the fact I am trying to provide information in a fair and balanced manner; not looking to tug at emotions, but state what seems to be the obvious.

Many grade auctions have suspended horse sales for now as Canadian and reportedly Mexican slaughterhouses are refusing to accept American horses for slaughter, reportedly the result of an European Union (EU) Directive.  Since no one seems to be talking, including the EU, it is not known if this defacto ban is a temporary time out, long term, or a permanent ban.  Regardless of the status of this 'pause', after doing some research, it appears slaughter of horses for human consumption may no longer be an option for horses residing in America, at least for race horses.

Recently,  the EU concluded an audit of Mexican slaughterhouses where some concerns were raised regarding American horses presented for slaughter.  Specifically, the report claims in the executive summary:

However, the systems in place for identification, the food chain information and in particular the affidavits concerning the non-treatment for six months with certain medical substances, both for the horses imported from the US as well as for the Mexican horses are insufficient to guarantee that standards equivalent to those provided for by EU legislation are applied. This is mainly due to the absence of a verification by the CAs [Competent Authorities] of the validity and authenticity of the affidavits and that the live horses covered by these affidavits are normally not clearly identifiable until a few days before slaughter.
In the detailed section of the report, it goes on to say:
In addition, as noted also during the audit 2010-8524, there was no evidence in the USDA documents seen or from the statements/descriptions received from different parties on-the-spot, that the USDA takes any responsibility with regard to the origin of the animals (except that they originate from the US), controls over US assembly centres or to the reliability of the sworn statements on the medical treatments of animals. In addition, the horses are not identified during the full six months covered by these statements.
Translation:  In the United States, food animals are tracked from cradle to slaughter with their movements to different farms and facilities tracked, every medication given entered into a database along with when administered.  All the USDA does with respect to horses is certify the final origination point where a horse may arrive only a few days beforehand.  As to medications, who knows what has been given?  A review of EU documents show horses arrive with suspect affidavits; medications given listed in different color ink, signatures which differ with the printed names on the form of presumed owners, forms incomplete.  The problem is no one is allowed to question the validity of the affidavits.
One particular disturbing point with regards to animal welfare was noted at one of the four Mexican plants visited:
In one establishment, the time for sticking, bleeding, skinning of the head and cutting of the front legs was limited, leading to a situation where it cannot be excluded that the dressing of the carcass occasionally started before the bleeding had ended.
Translation:  It is conceivable some horses were not dead before they were being butchered.  The report does not say it is happening. 

So we can see there are some concerns regarding American horses going to Mexico.  But what about Canada where American horses make up 80% of the horses slaughtered? 

The last audit by the EU in Canada was done back in 2011 and was only concerned with the residue of pharmaceutical medications in livestock, not the actual slaughter process.  However, in the 2011 report, it indicates EIDs for horses imported from the United States are so lacking, there is a huge dependence in residual testing (testing after death for medications to see if any traces of medications remains in the carcass) to determine if the horse meat is acceptable for human consumption.. 

Here are the rules regarding medications used on equines:

Commission Regulation (EC) No 1950/2006 lists certain pharmacologically active substances which are deemed to be essential for the treatment of equidae and even though they are not listed in Table 1 of the Annex to Commission Regulation (EU) No 37/2010 these substances may also be used to treat equidae intended for human consumption. Such treatment must also be
recorded in Part 3 of Section IX of the equine passport and a period of six months from the date of last treatment to time of slaughter must be observed. The format of the passport (identification document) is laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 504/2008 which requires that all equidae must be accompanied by an identification document
If equidae  [horse, donkey, mule, etc.] are treated with a substance which is neither listed in Table 1 of the Annex to Commission Regulation (EU) No 37/2010 nor defined as an essential substance by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1950/2006, such a treatment permanently excludes the animal from the food chain.

So based on the reading of this previous section, if a drug is listed in EU Regulation 1950/2006, it must be six months since last administered to a horse.  If not listed in EUR 1950/2006, but is listed in EUR 37/2010, residual testing must not exceed the limits published.  Either way, the presence of a substance other than those in these two regulations would make the horse permanently ineligible for slaughter for human consumption.  Certain drugs commonly used in race horses, such as phenylbutazone, are drugs which would make a horse ineligible for human consumption.   

What does this mean?

It shows once again that American horses are not meant to be food animals and for food safety reasons alone, they should not be slaughtered.  So what are the options?  Even if the United States decided to resume slaughter within its own borders, the horse meat would not be acceptable for export to the EU as typical therapeutic medicating of race horses precludes their introduction into the food pipeline.  

At present, the only way it seems horses from the United States will be able to be used for EU purposes would be if the United States started treating horses as food animals, meaning micro chipping the horse, and requiring the logging of each medication given to a horse and when administered as well as the tracking of each horse from birth till death.  Should the animal have been at a particular farm when a contagious disease was identified, it is possible the government would destroy any horse that potentially came in contact with a contaminated horse.  Otherwise, treated as if it was a cow.    Is this going to happen?  I know parties within the industry have opposed this type of tracking of horses. 

So unless the government decides to treat horses as a food animal by July of 2013 when horse passports detailing their history becomes mandatory, it appears the time is coming where race horses in the United States will have no value to kill buyers as food animals.  Like it or not, racing is going to have to deal with the unwanted race horse issue as there will be no one looking to take care of the owner's 'problems' for them.

Of course, things can change.  Don't expect kill buyers to just walk away and go home.  No doubt there will be lobbying to have the government talk to the EU regarding their standards in an effort to open the pipeline and keep it open and in what seems to be a long shot, attempt to get the USDA to classify horses as food animals with the same reporting requirements as cattle.

Another option may be an attempt by pro-slaughter forces to resume their attempt to get slaughterhouses in the United States opened for horses so the horse meat may be exported to countries which do not adhere to the EU standards for food safety; primarily Asian countries.  Whether or not providing horse meat to Asian countries would even be profitable is not known.

But this good news (if you are anti-slaughter) comes with a down side.  As distasteful and reprehensible slaughter is to many, it does provide a relief valve when it comes to unwanted race horses.  With a growing number of post-racing horses available and rescue groups unable to handle the current population of unwanted horses, the plain truth is what has been treated as an individual problem is becoming an industry problem.  No racing industry can expect to survive with no plan in place to address the plight of the unwanted horse. 

To the USTA's credit, certain programs are in place to help those seeking to rescue horses.  The USTA has launched an effort to promote the versatility of the standardbred for off the track careers as well as operating the Full Circle program, a program where individuals who have a connection to a horse express their interest in obtaining a horse once its racing career has concluded.  In addition to these programs, the USTA annual commits a certain amount of money available to take care of standardbred which have been rescued from situations of neglect.  The Halters for Hope program, in existence for two years plus now is a way to get individuals to donate funds to horse rescues by purchasing halters of famous horses with the money going directly to a rescue.  While worthwhile programs, their scope is limited as they help those who want to help horses.  What is lacking is an industry-wide solution.

An industry-wide solution will require a multi-faceted approach.  The industry needs to realize unwanted horses is everyone's problem, not just those who wish to make it their problem.  A program such as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance needs to be established in order to provide funding to rescues of standardbreds, not only to tend to their existing horse population but to also allow rescues to expand their operations.  Racetracks need to provide a means for owners/trainers to surrender horses who can no longer race without recrimination so the horses may enter the rescue pipeline safely, in a timely manner.  Unfortunately, there are horses who are raced too long for which a post-racing career is not possible.  For them, there needs to be a program to provide for humane euthanasia,

Let's not forget the breeders.  Breeding for speed needs to be reconsidered; perhaps a need to roll back the breed to the times when horses raced forty times a year, a day when the standardbred was more durable; meaning those horses who race more often and longer in order to keep horses on the track instead of in the rescue.  No one is suggesting going back to the horses of the 1960s but the quest for speed has come at the cost of a less durable horse.  In addition, breeding for quality instead of quantity is of paramount importance.   

Opportunities for an industry-wide response to unwanted horses has been muted in the past.  Thanks to the EU, this discussion is going to draw attention.  Is racing up to the task of address this issue?  We will soon find out.


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