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December 4, 2012

Horse Slaughter and the Horsemeat Trade in Europe

Humane Society International/Europe

  • Europe lies at the centre of the global horsemeat trade. Jennifer Kunz/HSUS

The European Union lies at the very heart of the global horsemeat trade.

Each year 250,000 horses are killed for their meat in Europe, with many tens of thousands of those horses suffering long-distance transportation to industrialised slaughter plants to feed European consumers.

In order to satisfy the demand, additional hundreds of thousands of kilos of horsemeat is imported into the EU annually from abattoirs in other countries, such as Argentina, Mexico and Canada.

Horse slaughter is not only inhumane, but can also be a health concern due to the possible presence of veterinary drug residues.

Horsemeat consumption in Europe

While there is a lucrative trade in horsemeat in Europe, it is not necessarily consumed in all EU countries to an equal degree, if at all. Horsemeat is, for example, commonly eaten in (parts of) Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, while, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, there has historically been a strong cultural aversion to eating it.

Even in the countries where horsemeat is widely available, not everyone believes that it is acceptable to eat it. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI in July 2012 [1] found that only 50 per cent of respondents in France, 51 per cent in Belgium and 58 per cent in Italy believed that it was acceptable to eat horses.

The road to hell: Long-distance horse transport in the EU

Each year tens of thousands of horses endure long distance transport within the EU, by road and even by sea, often crammed into vehicles unsuitable for carrying equines.

Journeys can last for several days, and often cross a number of national borders before the horses reach the abattoir.

Not only can horses suffer during transportation, they are also subject to the stress of being unloaded and kept in holding pens, or lairage, at their final destination.

Industrialised slaughter

The European horsemeat industry centres around Italy and Spain with nearly half of all horses slaughtered for meat being killed there. The remainder are slaughtered primarily in Poland, Romania, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Industrial-scale slaughter of horses is highly problematic because horses are flight animals. The panic and instinctive desire to escape they experience in the slaughterhouse causes them to thrash their heads frantically making it difficult to effectively stun them prior to slaughter.

Importing cruelty

What many European horsemeat consumers do not know is that huge quantities of the meat are routinely imported to the EU from the other side of the globe.

In addition to the cruelty associated with horse slaughter, serious concerns have been raised about the safety of such imports, particularly meat derived from horses of US origin which are killed at slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

Consumer safety & drug residues

To ensure consumer safety, the EU will only permit the importation of meat products that comply with EU food safety standards. Import regulations for horsemeat require it to be free from veterinary drug residues.

Despite both Canada and Mexico introducing steps to meet EU requirements, HSI believes that growing evidence shows those measures to be fundamentally flawed.

Humane Society International is urging the European Commission to take action to ensure that meat from non-EU origin horses is no longer placed on the EU market.

What we're doing

HSI Europe is working with our Canada office and the Equine Protection Department of The Humane Society of the United States to stop the slaughter of these beautiful and intelligent animals, reduce the international demand for horsemeat, and raise awareness of the serious health risks that horsemeat contaminated with veterinary pharmaceuticals poses to consumers in Europe and elsewhere.

View our European Voice ad [pdf]
View our plea to Commissioner Borg [pdf]


1. Ipsos MORI, Attitudes to Horsemeat Consumption, 20th August 2012. Survey in Italy, Belgium and France commissioned by Humane Society International.

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