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February 21, 2013

Widening Horse Meat Scandal Prompts Action in the EU

The revelations about horse meat masquerading as beef products represent one of the biggest food scandals in recent years. It’s of keen interest to The HSUS and Humane Society International because we’ve been warning European authorities of the dirty deeds of the horse meat industry. While there are no operating slaughter plants in the U.S., growing numbers of American horses are being live-shipped to Canada and Mexico, where they are slaughtered and then sent to Europe. We know that these horses are routinely given veterinary drugs not suited for human consumption. We have not been able to understand why Europe has neglected to adhere to its rigid food safety standards when it comes to horse meat.

The abuses of the horse meat industry are unraveling before the eyes of the world. I’ve asked Jo Swabe, HSI’s EU Director in Brussels, to provide a dispatch. She’s been working around the clock on the issue, along with several members of our European and American staff, who have traveled to Europe during the past week to apprise European officials of the realities of the horse meat trade in America.



Last week, when we learned along with the rest of the world about a widening horse meat scandal in Europe, we wondered if this might be a crack in the armor of the American horse slaughter trade. We had recently learned that the number of horses exported for meat from Canada and Mexico, where most U.S. horses go for slaughter, had jumped to over 160,000 in 2012. Clearly, demand is driving the supply ever higher as, at least in Europe, the cheap cost of horse meat, relative to beef, has caused unscrupulous dealers to switch out beef for horse meat in processed foods such as lasagna and Bolognese sauce. When this fraud was discovered on Irish and English supermarket shelves, citizens in these horse-loving nations were enraged.

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Jennifer Kunz/The HSUS/FFA

European politicians, concerned about a further loss of consumer confidence in the fragile European economy, are launching investigations in search of the magnitude of the fraud, and developing a plan to stabilize constituent confidence in the highly regulated food safety system.

The HSUS equine protection team immediately joined with Humane Society International representatives in the European Union to implement a strategy to advance humane concerns related to the cruelty and lack of human food safeguards in the shady North American abattoir industry. American horses do not belong on foreign dinner tables.

Horse slaughter isn't just bad for the horse, it is a serious violation of EU food safety standards because American horses are routinely given doses of veterinary drugs absolutely prohibited for any animal that enters the European food chain. We've tried to alert the European Commission before but have simply been ignored. However, now Europe can't afford to fix part of this problem, the fraud, without fixing the entire system. Without comprehensive action consumer confidence will drop even more and the economy will be even further damaged.

HSUS and HSI representatives have met with officials from seven governments so far this week. On Thursday we delivered a petition with signatures of over 9,000 EU citizens asking that the European Union place a moratorium on the sale of horse meat of American origin, because the regulatory authorities cannot ensure that the horses are in compliance with Europe's own food safety regulations. We have more meetings later this week. In addition, we have been talking with the European media and other humane organizations to solidify our position that horses from North America do not belong in the European food chain.

As we meet with European officials, the scandal is widening. This week the EU called for its member state governments to test both for DNA (to determine if products labeled beef are in fact beef and not horse) and also for drug residue. This signals an expansion of the EU's investigation from the fraud related to species, to a concern about the illegal trade in adulterated horse meat. Since 20 percent of the horse meat consumed in the EU comes from North America, and virtually all of this meat is out of compliance with EU food safety standards, we are gratified to see that the Commission is paying attention to this serious food safety concern. The scandal has widened as well with Belgium announcing fraud in its equine "passport" system. This mandatory program documents all drugs given to European horses destined for slaughter. In addition, this week several more countries have verified that they have discovered horse meat in their beef products.

The Council of the European Union is set to meet early next week to agree on its response to the scandal and announce significant reforms to address this crisis. We will be in Brussels and the capitols of other influential governments over the next several days talking with health, environment and agricultural officials to convince them that Europe cannot have a safe and compliant food system while allowing the sale of horse meat from North America with no lifetime drug treatment history.

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