Horsemeat: Consumer Safety & Drug Residues

Humane Society International

In addition to the cruelty associated with horsemeat imported to the European Union, serious concerns have been raised about human health risks in meat derived from horses of non-EU origin, particularly from the United States.

Each year, more than 100,000 horses are shipped across the U.S. border to Canada or Mexico for slaughter at abattoirs that supply the European market.

Veterinary medicines

Unlike in the EU, where all horses are categorised as food-producing animals (irrespective of whether their owners regard them as such), horses in Oceania, North and South America are not raised to be food animals.

As a consequence, horses in countries that supply the European market are routinely treated with veterinary medicines, such as the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, which are prohibited for use in food animals because they may pose a risk to human health. There are no legal requirements for owners to record the use of such drugs.

In the EU, however, owners are required to maintain equine passports, detailing treatment with any medicines banned for use in food animals. Passports must accompany horses as they move within a Member State or across national borders and record, where certain drugs have been used, that the animal must be excluded from the food chain.

Although this passport system is not completely watertight, as recent incidents of fraud with equine passports have highlighted, it is an important safeguard. [1]

Excluding veterinary drug residues from the food chain

The EU will only permit the import of meat products that comply with EU food safety standards and slaughterhouses approved for export to the region are subject to audits by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO). To ensure consumer safety, import requirements for horsemeat [PDF] require it to be free of veterinary drug residues.

Since these EU regulations came into force on 31 July 2010, only horses with a known medicinal treatment history can be slaughtered for export to the EU. However, hundreds of thousands of horses in non-EU countries who have been treated with veterinary pharmaceuticals that are banned for use in food producing animals in the EU, are sent to EU approved slaughterhouses every year. While countries, such as Canada and Mexico, have introduced measures to meet these requirements, official FVO audits [2] continue to conclude that the measures introduced by the Canadian and Mexican authorities are irretrievably flawed. HSI believes that, in the case of horses of non-EU origin, these steps are unworkable because generally no treatment records are kept for horses in these countries.

Lack of medical history

Large numbers of horses are often bought at US auctions by “kill buyers” whose sole intention is to send them directly to slaughter.

There is no requirement for a medical history to be supplied to the new owner; however documents are filled out at the auction for any horse who has been bought by a kill buyers for slaughter at an EU-approved slaughterhouse in Canada or Mexico. These equine identification documents are usually completed by the auction house or kill buyer, individuals who have many times had the horse for 24 hours or less and know nothing about the horse’s lifetime medical treatment history.

This raises real concern about the ease with which potentially unsafe drug residues could enter the human food chain and be exported for sale to EU markets.

Non-EU origin horsemeat off the EU market

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.

1. Fraud with equine passports in the EU, for example, has been investigated in the Netherlands. Incidents of fraud are also reported in: European Commission, Directorate of Health and Consumers (2012) Final report of an audit carried out in Belgium from 23 January to 2 February 2012 in order to evaluate the official controls related to slaughter and processing of fresh meat, in particular fresh equine meat DG(SANCO) 2012-6332 – MR FINAL.

2. European Commission, Health and Consumers Directorate-General (2012) Final report of an audit carried out in Canada from 13 to 23 September 2011 in order to evaluate the monitoring of residues and contaminants in live animals and animal products, including controls on veterinary medical products DG(SANCO) 2011-8913 – MR FINAL.

European Commission, Health and Consumers Directorate-General (2011) Final report of an audit carried out in Canada from 23 November to 06 December 2010 in order to evaluate the operation of controls over the production of fresh meat, meat products, minced meat, meat preparations and casings for human consumption destined for import to the European Union under the auspices of the agreement between the European Community and Canada on sanitary measures to protect public health and animal health in respect of trade in live animals and animal products. DG(SANCO) 2010-8522- MR FINAL.

European Commission, Health and Consumers Directorate-General (2011) Final report of a mission carried out in Mexico from 22 November to 03 December 2010 in order to evaluate the operation of controls over the production of fresh horse meat and meat products intended for export to the European Union as well as certification procedures. DG(SANCO) 2010-8524 – MR FINAL.

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