I'm so hungry I could eat a horse....
According to the Federal Government Department Of Agriculture around 40,000 horses are slaughtered each year in Australia for human consumption and the pet food industry, mostly for overseas markets, the biggest of which is Japan and also includes France, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Around 20% of these horses – 8000 – come from feral stock, ie. brumbies. The rest will be domestic stock, ex-race horses and the like. The horses are slaughtered and their meat processed in two onshore export-accredited abattoirs located in South Australia and Queensland.
Over the last year or so I have been monitoring a movement in the US which will see a ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption made into legislation. Until recently 100,000 horses were slaughtered annually in the US with their meat being destined for European dinner tables.
Animal welfare and US Horse Industry groups who strongly opposed this particular aspect of the slaughter industry successfully convinced a handful of politicians that it was wrong to slaughter horses for human consumption and the whole process of debate began. Over the ensuing months the debate entered the pubic domain and gathered speed. Publicly in the US, horses seem to have a strong place in both the historical and cultural psyche of the community, irregardless of whether people are actually involved with horses or not. Public pressure and popular opinion mounted and a bill was tabled in government to ban the slaughter of the horses for human consumption. Despite a few hiccups – including clerical errors and supreme court rulings – it looks increasingly likely that the three state-side processing plants, which slaughter 100,000 horses annually, will be shut down permanently.
No provision has been made for the care and welfare of the 100,000 horses that have been saved from slaughter.
At this point I should say that I am not opposed to the slaughter of horses in abattoirs. I do not like it one bit. But I also understand – particularly in view of the horrifying neglect / drought cases at Lara, Tolmie, Kyneton and others – that sometimes destroying an animal is the kindest option. And, as responsible owners and industry members, sometimes the hard decisions are ours to make. If horses are to be slaughtered, as opposed to being left to suffer slow, degrading and despairing deaths through neglect, then I also have no objection to their meat being onsold for human consumption. I feel that it is western society's squeamishness that prevents us from utilising every part and by-product of animals.
Jane Duckworth, author of "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" and editor of NetRider, agrees saying 'If horse lovers hate the idea of slaughterhouses for horses remember that these businesses do perform a useful service for horse owners and the horse industry. In February this year I had my own beloved horse put down by a licensed knackery worker on the property as I believe that shooting the horse on home ground in the correct way is more humane that having him or her put down with barbiturates by a vet. The problem of having to dispose of the body was also solved, and in an environmentally sound manner."
If, however, the horse meat industry exists because we over-breed and / or breed specifically for the meat industry then I am definitely opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
Eva Berriman, a veterinarian, qualified technical teacher and technical writer from Queensland writes in her article Horse Slaughter and Horse Meat: The Facts "As with cattle and other types of livestock, the best meat comes from younger animals in good condition with quality muscling. So it is not the old, broken-down horses tired of living that are killed at these two horsemeat abattoirs - they go instead to one of the 30-odd knackeries throughout Australia, there to be processed for petfood, fertiliser, hides etc. No, it is much younger horses mostly still in their prime which are slaughtered for human consumption. Exempt from this group are usually pony and draught types, which are less preferred for various reasons. Grey horses are not normally accepted either because of the likelihood of malignant melanoma, a human health risk.
So where are these quality younger animals, rarely past middle years, coming from? It is difficult to get a breakdown of breeds/types sold for slaughter. The selling agents do not keep a record and the abattoirs are not forthcoming. But even in the absence of documented figures, the finger must be pointed firmly at the racing industry, which has a very high attrition rate of fine quality, well-muscled horses still in their prime often with no road open except to a horsemeat abattoir."
Nicole Pearce, President of Horses In Drought Inc, one of many organisations providing help and care for drought stricken horses along the Eastern States of Australia, says "What we do with unwanted, severely debilitated or excess stock and why this is happening, is definitely a bone of contention in the current climate. Whilst I do not like abattoirs and knackeries, I do believe that they serve a significant purpose. What they choose to do with the by products in the end is I believe is superfluous to this discussion. Having said that though, I can categorically say that I would never sit down to a meal of horse. "
On June 26 2007 The Age Newspaper ran an article Horses For Courses When Tuna Is Off The Menu In Japan which looks at how the culinary trade in Japan is searching for alternative meats, in particular for Sushi dishes, in the face of falling Tuna Fish stocks world wide – this trialling of different meats includes horse, a delicacy in some parts of Japan. If Japan is one of our biggest importers of horse meat it is reasonable to assume that we will see an increased demand for horse meat processed by the SA and QLD abattoirs as Tuna Stocks continue to decline and prices rise.
You often hear the saying "there's no money in horses". I beg to differ. In fact I would go as far as to say there is a substantial economy in horses. The RIRDC report The Horse Industry Contributing To The Australian Economy, published in 2001 (an updated report will be available from RIRDC at the end of this year) says that the Australian Horse Industry contributes around $6.3 billion dollars annually to the Australian economy. This figure includes the RIRDC estimates of profit made from horse meat in 1999 to be around $11.5 million; the overall contribution to the industry was $25 million which includes labour, transport etc.
The slaughter of 40,000 horses for human consumption annually in Australia is an important issue that needs to addressed by our industry. If, for instance, horse lovers across the country, wanted to oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption as has been done in the United States , what is to become of those 40,000 horses and who will care for them?
This question, more than any other, was never satisfactorily answered by proponents of the bill to end horse slaughter in the US. Nicole, Horses In Drought Inc, comments that "Where there is livestock, unfortunately there is also dead stock. This is the reality of the country we live in. Over the past five years I have witnessed first hand, the impact the drought is having on the equestrian industry particularly throughout NSW and VIC. The drought has taken its toll on our equine companions and I have no doubt, that with the on-going effects of the drought, this will continue for some time."
Barry Smyth, Australian Horse Industry Council President, says "The proposed USA legislation is a real concern to the US horse industry because there is no mechanism or funding proposed to cope with all these horses if they are to remain within the USA and be looked after properly - who will do it, where, what funds are available etc. etc.? And what do you do with them all when they eventually die anyway? The costs of this will be astronomical if it ever comes to pass. It will also raise more welfare considerations and concerns that it hopes to solve."
The RIRDC report estimated that there was 68722 broodmares and 5059 breeding stallions in 2001. Given that the RIRDC estimates around 10% of breeding stock won't produce live foals, and 20% of slaughtered horses are feral, that still leaves 32,000 domestic animals out of an estimated 61,850 horses produced each year that will be slaughtered in subsequent years. That's over half the horses Australia breeds annually that end up – at some point in their lives – being slaughtered, although Barry Smyth from AHIC is quick to point out, "All horses will eventually end up dead for various reasons … Many studies indicate that the most common reason for destruction of horses is old age, followed by colic and then lameness and injuries. So slaughter for human consumption is way down the list of reasons of why horses are destroyed or die."
However, Eva Berriman, writes in her article Horse Slaughter and Horse Meat: The Facts "A significant statistic is that the peak slaughter years of the 80s also saw the highest number of Thoroughbred foals born, culminating in a record 23,697 in 1989. Apart from minor fluctuations, every year after that saw a steady decline to about 17,000 foals born in 2004. This fall was paralleled by a decline in horsemeat production. It is logical to assume that the decreasing foal crop was heavily biased towards the lower end of the Thoroughbred market and therefore representative of those foals which, had they been born, would have been most likely to contribute to the horsemeat trade."
The breeding of horses in Australia also brings up another question as well as providing an insight into how many horses may end up being "unwanted". If the average cost (private / domestic, ie not racing industry) of breeding a foal is $2290 (assuming it is on your property and you have plenty of feed, this figure includes stuff like worming, feet, teeth, vet etc for both mare an foal over 18-24 months) to upwards of $6775 (this figure includes stuff like worming, feet, teeth, vet, full hard feeding, breed registration, insurance, purchasing gear, transportation etc for both mare an foal over 18-24 months) it makes you question why many people will breed a horse when they have to sell the foal for a minimum of $2290 just to break even; and more likely closer to $7000 as many people are having to hard feed their horses. When you look at the costs of breeding like this – and keep in mind I haven't even calculated in stud fees, property payments such as mortgage, labour costs or tax – it is no wonder that many small stud businesses either a/ end up going broke or b/ end up being unable to care for their horses, or worse still, both.
Although we know that 40,000 horses are slaughtered for the meat industry, with 20% coming from feral stock, there is little accurate information about age, breed or type of horse going through the abattoirs. This lack of information extends to the simple knackeries where additional horses are slaughtered for pet food, fertiliser etc. Although some experienced equine experts like Eva Berriman are willing to theorize on the origin of many of the horses sent for slaughter, there is little actual data, other than numbers, on the subject.
If we were to tackle this as a community, or even as an industry, we would do well to know where the abattoirs source their horses from. Are they mostly young thoroughbreds as Ms Berriman claims? Or do they come from other sources as well? How do we track the birth, movement and death of horses in Australia? One obvious answer is identification, a solution which also has huge implications for the welfare of horses.
Nicole Pearson, Victorian Horse Council / DPI feels that "identification [is linked] to the slaughter/live export for human consumption issue [because it] highlights the lack of ability to trace for any diseases present in the horses slaughtered; any chemicals used during its lifetime that would deem the animal unsuitable for consumption; and traceability to the previous owner [that could] avoid malicious actions such as theft and transport to slaughter".
Gail Ritchie, AHIC Director (NSW) and General Manager NCHA, also believes that the horsemeat issue is "another good reason why we need national identification of horses, because we have no real way of getting the correct data needed" to accurately measure the number of horses slaughtered each year in Australia, where they came from, how old or what type of horse they are.
Julie Fielder, of South Australia's peak horse industry body – Horses SA – thinks that identification is a critical issue. "I believe the horse ID system brought into the UK and Europe permits owners to identify, on the papers, if the horse is to go for human consumption/slaughter or not. This is the first level of management, which would be most effective." UK Equine Passports do, in fact, allow for this however the primary reason for the introduction of passports was to create a "control system to ensure that horses which have been treated with veterinary medicines not authorised for use in food-producing animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption" (from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), UK.).
A problem often encountered by welfare agencies, when attending reports of neglected horses, is trying to identify, and locate, the owners. This is especially true on large agistment properties where horses are kept in a group or common paddock. Suddenly welfare officers will find that 'no-one' owns the horses in question!
More than any other, the issue of identification is one that seems to unify industry experts from all corners. Jane Duckworth, author of "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" and editor of NetRider, feels that "a national microchipping system is essential to id horses going to saleyards and slaughterhouses and also so that neglectful owners can be traced and prosecuted". In a 2004 NetRider article on Horse Identification Jane outlines some of the possible benefits of Horse ID including "in cases of theft; where health certificates must be issued; when horses are competing; when horses are sold; when contagious diseases are trying to be controlled and for breeding purposes".
And not only the horse industry, but HorsePoint readers also overwhelmingly voted in a recent online poll that Horse ID Should be compulsory with 80% answering "yes". In a second poll 79% of readers voted microchipping as their preferred choice of Identification for horses (14% chose DNA; 7% chose branding). In terms of Horse Identification Microchipping – usually inserted under the skin on the neck of the horse – is probably the most feasible. Where papers or passports can be lost, forged or stolen along with the horse, and branding is being phased out as a method of identification, Microchipping offers a permanent and reasonably fail safe method of identify a horse. Where the horse goes, it goes. The other failsafe method is DNA typing and recording where, as with humans, a horse's DNA is unique and therefore a foolproof method of identification.
In either case the ID process need only occur once for the horse to be uniquely identified and recorded. Where DNA falls short however is in later identification of the horse, for example where proof of identity is required at a show, during the sale of the horse, in welfare cases or in cases of theft. Proving identity would require taking a sample from the horse and sending it away for testing – a matter of days or even weeks. There is also the risk – albeit minimal – that samples could be mixed up. In cases of theft, and especially in welfare where time is pressing, the collection and testing of samples could prove untimely and, ultimately, disastrous.
Microchipping by contrast allows immediate identification by use of a mobile hand held scanner. Additionally lost or stolen horses could be reported by owners and/or the police to the microchip registry where their files could be 'flagged'; any scan of the horse in the future would return a result showing the horse as lost or stolen and thus aid in its recovery.
Cost is also minimal with the average price of Microchipping at around the $65 to $75 mark. Additionally, once the horse has an implant, any scans to prove identity would be free. DNA testing in Australia is around the same price however you must be registered with a club or association, and the tests conducted through that association. DNA typing is not available to individual horse owners unless they send the genetic material of their horses overseas – usually the USA. Second to that, every time an owner needed to prove the horse's identification they would have to send material for testing at the same fee so there are ongoing costs involved.
Another important issue to consider is industry membership. While many of us deplore the abuse and neglect of horses, are irate about the inadequacy of legislation regarding horse welfare and don't like the idea of horses being slaughtered** unless we come together as a unified group there is little that we can individually do about it. (**poll results show that horse welfare was the number one [45% of voters] industry issue that most people were concerned about; of that, 27% of people identified Unwanted horses being abandoned / neglected as the most important followed by Unwanted horses being sent to slaughter 20%; and Laws designed to protect horses 13%)
The impression I often receiving when talking to people about joining an industry peak body is that they fear that a centralised council will somehow start telling them what they can or can't do; far from it, a centralised horse industry body would afford the horse community an opportunity to be represented, at a federal level, and actually have a say regarding issues like horse welfare legislation, access to trails, urban planning (another important industry issue because it relates to the loss of land and the safety of our horses).
Look at it another way. Let's say one horse person goes to the minister for agriculture and says "I want you to change the laws so that they better protect horses." What chance does that person have of a/ being heard in government or b/ effecting change? However, if 20,000 horse people (not unreasonable considering Pony Club Australia alone has around 75,000 members) went to the Minister for Agriculture there's a much bigger likelihood of being both heard and taken seriously.
Horse slaughter in Australia – particularly as we have a multi-billion dollar horse industry and particularly as we are a drought prone country – is an issue that I believe we need to examine and take responsibility for. In the first instance I believe we need to collect far more accurate information and a national horse identification process will go a long way to achieving this (not to mention the spin off benefits for horse owners – proof of identity / ownership, prevention of theft, aid in recovery of lost and stolen horses). In the second instance industry membership will go a long way to ensuring the strength and continued growth of our industry because it will enable us to take control of the issues that affect us and actively do something about them … most particularly in regards to welfare of our equine friends.
Post Script: In October 2007 the Victorian Government moved to introduce compulsory microchipping of all Victorian horses. This is due to be introduced by the end of 2009. It appears that similar moves will be undertaken by the NSW and QLD governments if we can take the microchipping of 10's of 1000's of vaccinated horses as an indicator of future plans.
- By Geraldine Chapman www.HorsePoint.com.au