American horses are sold to slaughter factories in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Many are concerned that the slaughtered American horses, which were not raised for human consumption, eventually make their way into the food chain and could pose serious health concerns.
Horse slaughter factories for human consumption once existed in America; there were three factories owned by foreign companies.
The factories shipped the horsemeat to the world’s top horsemeat consumers—Europe and Japan—where eating horsemeat is considered a delicacy, or at least normal. Two of the U.S. factories were in Texas, and one was in Illinois.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to close U.S. horse slaughter factories, so they removed funding for the required meat inspections. The slaughterhouses were forced to pay for inspections out-of-pocket until the Supreme Court ruled that slaughterhouses could not pay for their own inspections.
The two Texas plants closed first, and the Illinois plant closed in 2007. Since then, there have been some unsuccessful efforts and petitions to get horse slaughterhouses operating in the United States again.
Yet even with the ban on horse slaughterhouses in the United States, U.S. horses were still being sold and slaughtered in other countries.
“People will take their horses to auction, and many think they will get a wonderful home,” said Valerie Pringle, equine protection specialist at the Humane Society of the United States. “Many are bought by kill buyers and those kill buyers shove them onto trucks and take them to either Canada or Mexico.”
The horse gets a green ticket on their back end, indicating that they are slated to be slaughtered. Wild horses, however, cannot be sold for slaughter. The buyer must sign a contract stating that they will not kill the wild horse, according to Pringle.
She said that wild horses are protected in the United States, but that they “keep finding evidence of them showing up for slaughter.”
The Human Society published an investigation in October 2012 into the availability of horsemeat in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. The report states that Canada and Mexico were the two top horsemeat exporters. This was before the current scandal broke which has revealed that meat producers across Europe, in countries where horse is not normally consumed, are falsely selling horse in products labeled as beef.
What’s in US Horsemeat?
Pringle pointed out that cattle get a tag in the ear at birth, and every single kind of medication and treatment they receive is documented and recorded. Horses in the United States, however, do not. Owners and veterinarians are not required to keep a record for their horse, either.
“The problem with horses in the U.S. is that their drug histories aren’t tracked,” she said.
According to Pringle, U.S. horses are given a lot of drugs in their lifetime. Some drugs that the horses receive are legal such as Phenylbutazone, also known as bute, which is a pain and fever reducer for animals.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits bute from being used in food-producing animals intended for human consumption, and according to the FDA, only dogs and horses are allowed to receive the drug.
Pringle said that horses typically live for 20–30 years. Because of their long lifespans, it is common for them to undergo many medical treatments.
“Use in horses is limited to use in horses not intended for food. There are currently no approved uses of Phenylbutazone in food-producing animals,” states an official FDA announcement from 2003.
“Phenylbutazone is known to induce blood dyscrasias, including aplastic anemia, leukopenia, agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia, and deaths,” according to the FDA.
“Hypersensitivity reactions of the serum-sickness type have also been reported. In addition, Phenylbutazone is a carcinogen, as determined by the National Toxicology Program,” states the announcement.
In 1949, Phenylbutazone was marketed for people to use for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and gout, but once people started to experience “severe toxic reactions,” the drug was taken off the market and banned, according to the FDA.
Other drugs U.S. horses receive are not legal.
Some racehorses are given “cobra venom, cocaine, [or] south American tree frog juice, which is 40 times as strong as morphine and masks the pain so if their leg is compromised they can still run on it,” Pringle said.
The horse slaughter border business works something like this: the horses are bought at an auction, crammed onto a truck, and transported south or north, and something like a shipper’s certificate is signed, according to Pringle.
“It says, ‘As the owner of this horse, to the best of my knowledge, this horse has never received any banned drugs,’” she said about the certificate.
However, the new owners have only owned the horses for 24 hours.
“They sign this affidavit to the best of their knowledge,” Pringle said. “That is how they are allowed over the border. You can see it’s ripe for fraud.”
EU Strengthening Their Food Origin Traceability
Europe’s horsemeat scandal found fraud in the labeling of beef products. Europe’s supermarket shelves contained beef labeled solely “beef,” but traces of horsemeat were found in the beef.
According to European Union rules, that labeling is misleading. In mid-February 2013, EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg “called for a reinforcement of DNA and Phenylbutazone tests throughout the EU,” according to an official Feb. 15 memo.
The EU and Canada have also banned bute from being administered to food-producing animals.
The EU gets the majority of their horsemeat from Canada and Mexico, and the majority of that is from American horses, according to Pringle.
“I would want to question the safety of that meat … if these American horses have gotten in the food chain,” she said.
In 2010, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) set new rules on horsemeat exports after the EU Food and Veterinary Office discovered that the Canadian system and others did not have records for their horses, according to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Global Agriculture Information Network report.
“The audit found that there was no system to segregate horses for food from those
in the general population,” the reported states.
Now, any horse in a Canadian slaughterhouse must have an Equine Information Document. The document asks for the medical records of the horse for the past 180 days or “during the time you owned the animal,” according to the CFIA website.
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