The discovery in Ireland of horse meat in various meat products highlights concerns about meat traceability and equine welfare, the British Horse Society says.
It argues that several serious food hygiene issues need addressing as a matter of urgency.
The charity says the decision last year by the agriculture agency Defra to withdraw funding from the National Equine Database, and the subsequent loss of that database, has given rise to concerns that it is possible for contaminated horsemeat to enter the human food chain.
In Britain, all horses must have a passport which contains details of the drugs that a horse is given during its life. If a horse receives certain drugs, it may not be slaughtered for human consumption due to fears over the effects of these drugs on people.
However, with no central database to facilitate checks, it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports; one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter – allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption.
“The moral issues of using horses as meat-producing animals have also been brought into sharp focus,” the charity said.
“Unlike many countries on the continent, Britain has never had a culture of eating horsemeat and even the idea of it causes revulsion amongst many animal lovers. However, there are also people who believe that if we eat cows and sheep then it is hypocrisy to consider horse meat as being off the menu.”
The society said it neither condoned nor encouraged the consumption of horse meat, believing it was a choice for the individual.
“However, we as a nation must recognise the origin of much of the horse meat produced in our country. Rather than coming from animals ethically raised specifically for the purpose, it tends to come from horses that are surplus to requirements; a direct result of Britain’s equine overpopulation problem.
“Years of unchecked indiscriminate breeding have resulted in literally thousands of horses with little or no value and a shortage of responsible and knowledgeable owners willing to care for them.
“Frequently, these are the animals that end up at the abattoir and the society believes that tackling overpopulation should be our focus rather than debating the issue of consuming horsemeat. The society has been campaigning for a number of years to encourage horse owners to ‘Think Before You Breed’ and there is still a long way to go.”
It noted that the resources of all equine welfare charities were being stretched as never before due to both the economic climate and equine population.
“We firmly believe that as a nation of animal lovers we should concentrate on the thousands of horses that need our help and allow individuals to make their own moral decision about which meats are acceptable for consumption.”