EU blocks U.S. horse meat, then reverses decision

Oct 19, 2012

In a move that had animal rights activists temporarily cheering, and advocates of horse slaughter scrambling for answers, the European Commission reportedly blocked the import of U.S.-sourced horse meat processed at European Union (EU)-approved Canadian and Mexican kill plants Friday, Oct. 12, only to reverse course the following Monday.

The International Equine Business Association, a consortium of North American groups dedicated to supporting various horse industries, including humane slaughter, called the short-lived ban an “[i]ndustry crisis” in a press release.

“To ensure the welfare of horses and avoid an international humanitarian and economic catastrophe, the International Equine Business Association joins with thousands of North American horse owners and businesses to call on all applicable government entities in North America and the European Union to work quickly to resolve this crisis as soon as possible,” said the group on their website.

According to the organization’s data, some 2,500 U.S. horses are regularly shipped per week to EU-regulated kill plants in Mexico, with another 1,300 head shipped to Canadian plants. Given drought conditions, high cost of hay, shortage of pasture, and the general economic downturn, a block on exporting U.S. horses for slaughter could result in the wide-scale suffering of unwanted animals, the group said.

One day after the reported ban was lifted and shipping resumed, industry figures were still in a state of confusion regarding what had caused the sudden and unexpected interruption, and what allowed processing and export to resume.

“All I got is a phone call [Friday] saying they’re not buying horses no more, and this morning I get another call saying they’re back open,” said Monte Bruck, manager of the Fallon Livestock Exchange, which typically sells some slaughter horses at its weekly Tuesday sale. “It’s like the right hand don’t know what the left hand’s doing.”

According to a report in The Sacramento Bee, the sudden decision was not well communicated to U.S. sale barns and shippers or to international border authorities. Some shipments of slaughter horses already en route were allowed to cross the Canadian border, only to be turned back once they reached their final destination. Reports that shipments to Mexico were also turned away could not be confirmed.

Although normal transportation had resumed as of Monday, satisfactory explanations were hard to come by.

Reports circulated Tuesday that the ban occurred due to a “mislabeling” of a shipment of horse meat into the EU, although no specifics were available. People familiar with the situation claimed that the European Commission had briefly imposed a requirement that horses to be processed and shipped to the EU were required to be in the country where they were to be slaughtered for 90 days in order to enter the EU, effectively halting, but not technically banning imports.

Speculation was further heightened by the fact that an audit of Mexican horse processing plants by the European Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate- General was released Oct. 11, the day before the shortlived block was put in place.

Although the findings of the audit were generally positive, the authors found fault with the voluntary affidavit system used to verify that horses have not been given any prohibited substances (such as the popular antiinflammatory phenylbutazone, or “bute”)180 days prior to slaughter.

“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,” stated the report’s executive summary.

“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.”

For some, the issue of whether drug residue testing protocols for U.S. horse meat are sufficient to meet strict EU standards represents a more probable explanation for the sudden block on exports.

John Holland, president of the anti-slaughter organization Equine Welfare Alliance (EWA), wasn’t buying the official EU explanation that the block on exports was simply due to a labeling error. “The official answer from the EU doesn’t make much sense,” said Holland. A press release on EWA’s website stated that “the most likely explanation for the sudden move is that the expanded residue testing program has yielded worse than anticipated results.”

United Horsemen President Dave Duquette, who had spoken with the kill plant owners, rejected the idea that the shipment had tested positive for banned substances. “That’s what the animal rights people want you to believe, but that’s not the case.”

Specifics of the three-day block notwithstanding, the incident underscores the importance of establishing a residue testing and animal traceability protocol for U.S. horses that is consistent with EU requirements. The issue is particularly pressing since the EU has set July 31 of next year as a deadline for establishing a protocol that is equivalent to the European method, which requires a “passport” system of recording the entire life drug history for all horses bound for slaughter by means of a microchip implanted in the neck.

Advocates for the North American horse slaughter industry have voiced doubts that the EU will actually require the U.S. to implement the same method, pointing out that this would effectively end horse meat imports into Europe.

“The passport system I don’t think will be enforced,” said Duquette, who maintains that the existing system of affidavits, called “Equine Information Documents,” or EIDs, coupled with currently required randomized drug residue testing at the slaughter plants is effectively equivalent to the tough EU standard.

Holland disagreed, suggesting that the EID system “has no teeth,” since the affidavits are filled out on the honor system and can be easily faked.

“What it really comes down to is that these animals are not raised as food animals in the United States. There’s no restrictions on what we give them.

Then they go to auction and become food animals, and two days later, they’re slaughtered.”

Holland added that although anti-slaughter groups were skeptical that the brief closure over the weekend signaled a permanent end to U.S. horse slaughter, there is a general expectation among EWA membership that U.S. horse slaughter will eventually hit a regulatory dead end. Without implementing the passport system, Holland claimed, the drug residue issue is impossible to solve, and will eventually force an end to U.S. horse meat being allowed into Europe.

“We do believe it’s coming,” remarked Holland. “It has to be, because they can’t clean it up.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent