International animal welfare organisations demand a halt to the import and production of horsemeat under cruel conditions
The latest investigations by the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF), Animals’ Angels USA and Tierschutzbund Zürich (TSB) reveal that the production of horsemeat for the EU and Switzerland is steadily being relocated from North to South America. Together with a coalition of international animal welfare organisations, they have been calling for years for a halt on the import and production of horsemeat under cruel conditions. In Australia, the only EU-approved horse abattoir, Meramist, recently stopped slaughtering horses, and the EU imposed an import ban on Mexico in 2015. In the USA, horse slaughterhouses were closed back in 2007. Since then, US horses have been exported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. In Canada, the number of horses slaughtered has steadily declined from 54,000 in 2016 to approximately 12,000 in 2022. Only Argentina and Uruguay have recorded increases.
According to AWF, the relocation of horsemeat production to South America is partly to do with lower production costs. For years, AWF has been criticising the cruel conditions under which horsemeat is produced in North and South America. Conditions in producing countries vary.
Horsemeat from Canada
Bouvry Exports in Alberta, Canada, is the largest North American horse slaughterhouse. Half of the horses slaughtered in Canada come from the USA. EU meat export stipulations require US horses to be kept in feedlot pens for six months before being slaughtered. This is to minimise the risk of drug residues. “The practice causes drawn-out suffering. Horses are fattened up over the months until they get ill,” reports Sabrina Gurtner, project manager at AWF. The only purpose of the feed is to make them gain weight. The result is painful hoof and metabolic diseases. Sick horses are not given medical treatment. They should be given drugs like the anti-inflammatory painkiller phenylbutazone, but this drug is prohibited if the animal is to be slaughtered for human consumption. The feedlot manager confirms this to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency CFIA: “(…) phenylbutazone isn’t an option for horses going to slaughter. (…) their condition gets worse as they get heavier, but we can’t treat them because of the EU program.”
“In the course of our on-site investigations we repeatedly document lame horses, horses with laminitis and horses that have died of their illnesses or injuries,” says Sabrina Gurtner. Mares and stallions are mixed in Bouvry Exports’ feedlot. They take in pregnant animals too. “The chances of survival for foals in pens designed for fattening are slim. We’ve found sick foals in summer and foals that have frozen to death at birth in winter,” recalls Sabrina Gurtner.
“We import the horsemeat directly from Canada. We source it mainly from the Bouvry farm in Alberta, which is without a doubt the most appropriate, respectful horse breeding farm in the world. The horses there live in semi-freedom.” This is Swiss importer Skin Packing S.A. describing the way horses are kept at Bouvry Exports. “That’s not what we’ve observed on the ground for over a decade,” counters Sabrina Gurtner. Respectful breeders would not let foals freeze to death at birth or raise them in fattening pens like these. Professor Stephanie Krämer from Justus Liebig University in Giessen thinks this way of keeping horses is irreconcilable with animal welfare. “These animals aren’t fed properly or given care. Depriving the horses of medical treatment is also done intentionally, so that their meat can be exported. The pain these animals suffer is knowingly accepted.”
Horsemeat from Uruguay
For years, AWF and TSB have been monitoring the stages horses pass through before being slaughtered in EU-certified abattoirs for EU and Swiss customers. In a recent long-term investigation spanning two years in conjunction with a pre-announced EU inspection, the three EU-certified slaughterhouses Clay, Sarel and El Amanecer were observed covertly and overtly before, during and after the EU visit. “Our research shows that the EU audits are manipulated through extensive preparations,” reports Sabrina Gurtner. What is particularly striking is that only a fraction of the horses are on the slaughterhouse pastures during the audits. “These are selected horses in good overall condition. They’re placed on green pastures with protection from the weather. But that’s not the reality before and after the monitoring visits. Once the inspectors have left, the horses are put back on dusty, dirty fields, often without roughage and sometimes even without water. And instead of 40 to 60 healthy horses, there are hundreds. These include pregnant mares, seriously injured and severely emaciated animals,” Sabrina Gurtner says, describing her observations 14 days after the EU audit. “The behaviour of the workers is striking too. As soon as they feel unobserved, they use their driving flags as batons and beat the horses systematically,” says Sabrina Gurtner.
Problem: traceability and food safety
AWF and its partner organisations are generally critical of the inadequate traceability of horses in overseas meat production. There is no identification system for horses like there is in Europe. Several changes of ownership are common and many horses are traded at auctions. The last owner, usually the slaughter horse trader, provides information on medications and the origin of the horses they sell to slaughterhouses. “People rely on the honesty of the profiteers. That opens the way to systematic fraud and puts consumers in the EU and Switzerland at risk,” criticises Sabrina Gurtner.
“We regularly get reports from Uruguay and Argentina about stolen and smuggled horses. The police have put together a number of special units to convict mafia-like gangs,” says Sabrina Gurtner. Most recently, a criminal gang dedicated to smuggling stolen horses from Brazil was broken up in Uruguay in December 2022. The gang included a former police officer and the head of customs in Rivera.
Slaughter figures in Uruguay have been rising steadily for some years. It was 52,000 horses in 2022. Swiss importer Skin Packing has been promising for years to commit to improving its source slaughterhouses. “We haven’t seen any substantial improvements in animal welfare during our inspections,” says Sabrina Gurtner. AWF and its partner organisations have been criticising the abuse and neglect of slaughter horses in Uruguay and Argentina for years. Past EU audits confirmed animal welfare violations and the manipulation of audits by slaughterhouse operators in both countries.
“Considering the unresolved animal welfare problems in overseas slaughterhouses since 2012, the European Commission should take action at last and stop the import of horsemeat from cruel production,” demands AWF and its partner organisations.
Partner organisations in the EU and overseas:
Animales Sin Hogar (Uruguay), Animals’ Angels (USA), Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (Canada), Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (Australia), Dier&Recht (Netherlands), Fondation Franz Weber (Argentina), GAIA (Belgium), IHP Italian Horse Protection (Italy), Tierschutzbund Zürich (Switzerland), Welfarm (France), supported by Eurogroup for Animals (Brussels)