Measures that will improve the welfare of millions of horses and donkeys across Europe have been approved by the European Parliament, but US slaughter opponents are likely to be concerned by the thrust of proposed changes around drug residues.
Animal advocacy groups in Europe welcomed the adoption of the report, but concerns have been raised over a proposal to establish a withdrawal period system for horses and other equids treated with unauthorized substances.
This would allow animals currently excluded from the food chain to be slaughtered for human consumption, easing the path for meat exports from the likes of the United States where horses are not raised as food animals and lifelong medication records are not required.
The passed resolution acknowledged that the European Union (EU) did not allow meat from European horses not originally intended for slaughter to enter the human food chain, yet allowed more flexibility for meat imported from third countries.
It specifically mentioned the common anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone (bute), the use of which in a horse currently results in its life-long exclusion from the human food chain.
The resolution calls on the European Commission to establish maximum residue levels for commonly used veterinary medicines such as phenylbutazone “to guarantee safety in the food chain”.
It called on Europe’s member states to promote a withdrawal period system based on scientific research that would make it possible to bring an animal back into the food chain after a medicine has been administered to it for the last time, while still protecting consumer health.
The resolution stressed the differences in health requirements applicable to horse-meat produced in Europe and that imported from third countries. It said it was desirable to have an equivalent level of health and food safety requirements and conformity of imports for the European consumer irrespective of the origin of horse-meat.
It also called on the Commission to make country-of-origin labeling mandatory for all processed horse-meat products. The resolution backed more audits on slaughterhouses outside the EU and a raft of other measures that would improve the lot of horses in all spheres of life.
The report will now be passed to the European Commission with a recommendation for action.
While Humane Society International/Europe welcomed the European Parliament’s backing of what it described as an ambitious report, it voiced concerns over the proposals around establishing withdrawal periods around drugs that currently meant the exclusion of treated animals from the human food chain.
“While we applaud members of the European Parliament for adopting an ambitious report highlighting the specific welfare needs of horses, donkeys and other equidae, we strongly oppose the proposed establishment of a withdrawal period system that aims to facilitate the slaughter of an increased number of equids,” the group’s executive director, Joanna Swabe, said.
Such a system, she said, would potentially create additional animal welfare problems and would seriously undermine the EU’s efforts to strengthen the traceability of horse-meat.
Since July 31, 2010, the EU has required that the only horses allowed to be slaughtered for export within the Union are those with a known lifetime medical treatment history and medicinal treatment records that show they have not been treated with banned substances. Such animals must also satisfy the veterinary medicine withdrawal periods for other medications.
In 2014, the European Commission suspended the import of Mexican horse-meat imports owing to serious traceability and food safety concerns.
In 2016, the European Commission adopted new requirements to regulate the import of horse-meat from non-EU countries more strictly and require that horses are resident in the country of slaughter for at least six months before they may be for slaughtered for export to the EU.
The resolution’s key elements include:
- An increase in audits carried out in slaughterhouses outside EU that are authorized to export horse-meat to the EU and provision for suspending such imports when EU traceability and food safety requirements are not met;
- The formulation of guidance, facilitating and enhancing scientific research on the welfare of horses and other equids at the time of slaughter;
- Avoiding, when possible, the transport of live animals to slaughter and ensuring compliance with EU welfare rules on the transport of animals, with a shorter maximum journey time for all movements of horses for slaughter the likely result;
- Supplying statistics on a regular basis notably on the transport and slaughter of equine animals in the EU;
- A commitment by European states to inspect slaughterhouses licensed to handle horses;
- The launch of a pilot project under which funding would be targeted at farms committed to good welfare practices;
- The dissemination of information to tourists to help them decide whether to use services involving working horses and donkeys;
- New guidance on donkey and horse milk farming and increased inspections of farms;
- Production and circulation by the European Commission of information on how to care for horses and donkeys, including responsible breeding and end of life care;
- Review of the impact of VAT (a goods and services tax) on equestrian enterprises.
The British-based international charity World Horse Welfare also welcomed the European Parliament’s adoption of the report, suggesting it had the potential to transform the lives of horses, donkeys and mules across Europe and pave the way for higher equine welfare standards across the EU.
Its adoption allowed for the dissemination of basic information relating to the care of all equines across the EU, empowered consumers to choose horse businesses with high welfare standards, and provided funding for smaller farms to be rewarded for high standards of equine welfare.
The report, authored and spearheaded by Julie Girling, a British Conservative politician who represents southwest England in the European Parliament, included many of the key conclusions from a study published by World Horse Welfare and Eurogroup for Animals, entitled Removing the Blinkers: the health and welfare of European Equidae in 2015.
This was the first research report to fully outline the scope, scale and welfare challenges of the EU’s equine sector. The report identified a number of key welfare concerns – most of which were ultimately due to a basic lack of knowledge among owners.
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said the adoption of the resolution by the European Parliament could not be more timely.
“June will see the first meeting of the new EU Animal Welfare Platform, a new forum that aims to address specific challenges to animal welfare through cooperation between civil society, public authorities and industry. What better blueprint for action could we have? We commend Julie Girling MEP for her work in this regard.
“The welfare problems facing Europe’s equines are just that – European problems.
“Poor stabling conditions for horses are as likely to be found in Ireland as they are in Italy, overworked donkeys can be found in Santorini just as they can be found in Spain.
“The absence of basic knowledge right across the EU is hurting equines and holding back the economy alike,” Owers said.
“We are confident that this resolution is a big step in the right direction for better equine welfare across our Union, and we look forward to taking forward its conclusions in the near future.”
Girling said she was happy that her report had passed through Parliament with such a large majority.
“This is a chance to improve the lives of 7 million horses and donkeys.
“Animal welfare has never been higher on our citizens’ agenda, and high standards are a mark of a civilized society. I look forward to close cooperation with the Commission to take these recommendations forward.
“Horses and donkeys have come to possess vast economic potential. Today the equine sector adds over €100 billion to the EU’s economy each year and is a leading rural employer in many Member States.
“However, in too many cases these animals are faced with severe welfare concerns including neglect, overwork and inappropriate living conditions.
“Europe’s citizens want to see more action on animal welfare and, with this report, I believe we have a golden opportunity to not only substantially improve the lives of 7 million horses and donkeys but, by better caring for these animals, we also have a chance to unlock the full economic potential of the sector and boost the rural economy.
“It is a win-win situation for everyone involved.”