The slaughter of United States horses soared by 32 per cent in 2012 to more than 176,000 – a 20-year high.
The horses were exported largely to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada, which then shipped the meat to the European Union (EU), where more than a dozen member states are embroiled in an investigation into the contamination of beef products with horse meat.
The number of horses exported to Mexico increased from 68,429 in 2011 to 110,202 in 2012, a 61 per cent increase, while exports to Canada descreased by 7.5 per cent to 59,812, US Department of Agriculture figures show.
The Equine Welfare Alliance, an umbrella organisation for horse advocacy groups, condemned the trade.
It said authorities had allowed the trade to continue despite the EU repeatedly finding the prohibited carcinogen phenylbutazone and other banned substances in the meat of US horses, and despite its own audit reports stating that they still have no effective way of preventing contaminated horse meat from entering their food chain.
Both Canada and Mexico require slaughter-horse sellers to provide Equine Information Documents (EIDs) stating any drugs the horses have been given. But, inexplicably, Mexico does not test for phenylbutazone or even include it on seller affidavits despite the fact that the drug is at the top of the EU’s banned substance list, the alliance says.
The group said the discovery of horse meat in meals supplied to schools and hospitals was of particular concern since children were extremely vulnerable to even trace amounts of phenylbutazone, which can cause potentially lethal aplastic anemia.
“The reason for both the scandal and the contamination lies in the nature of the horses,” explains alliance president John Holland.
“US horses being sent to slaughter are overwhelmingly young sport horses, four to eight years old, and at the end of very short careers. The horses are comprised largely of quarter horses – about 70 per cent – followed by thoroughbreds and standardbreds. Most were used in rodeo and racing before being dumped to slaughter.
“Since the horses are a byproduct of these sports, they were not raised for slaughter and were almost universally given drugs prohibited in food animals.
“The low cost of these horses – $US100 to $US500 – makes them far cheaper than beef, thus providing a huge incentive for the fraudulent substitution.”
Increases in the cost of keeping horses in recent years have suppressed the domestic market for recreational horses, leaving the kill buyers with bargains galore, Holland says.
A ban on funding for US horse meat inspections, which was passed by Congress in 2006, was rescinded in 2011, but to date no horse slaughter plants have opened in the US, he added.
“Despite the devastating effect of the scandal on beef sales in the EU, and endless revelations about contaminated horse meat, Oklahoma is considering repealing its own ban on horse slaughter in hopes of enticing a plant to that state.”
Mexico exports nearly 70,000 tonnes of horse meat annually. However, the biggest producer in the world is China, which exports more than 170,000 tonnes annually. The second-biggest producer is Kazakhstan, which produces about 73,000 tonnes annually.