Equine meat imports and labeling

While horsemeat constitutes a low percentage of the EU’s total meat consumption, it has longer supply chains and more operators involved, so it carries more risk than other categories of meat, not only for consumers but also for the horses.

Most of the imported horse meat consumed in the EU comes from South America, where minimum welfare standards for the animals slaughtered are not met, with smaller quantities being imported from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Investigations by our members have documented shocking conditions and mistreatment of horses at slaughterhouses and assembly centres in several of these countries. 

Since 2012 Tierschutzbund Zürich and the Animal Welfare Foundation, together with animal advocacy organisations in Uruguay, the USA and Canada, have been documenting abuse in the production of horsemeat. Their video footage reveals that horses in the Americas are systematically tortured. They are kept in the open, unprotected from pouring rain, permanent frost or blistering heat, and injured or sick horses do not receive veterinary care. Foals often die at birth in slaughterhouse pens. Overall, the pre-slaughter mortality of horses is high. 

In addition, reports from EC audits in Mexico and Brazil have highlighted poor animal welfare conditions during transport. The investigations constantly demonstrate systematic abuse, mistreatment and neglect. As audits and visits need to be announced, the visited sites take temporary measures to improve their conditions. As revealed by NGOs investigations, these measures are, however, only short lived, as for example, the day after the audit emaciated horses will appear again at slaughter plants and badly built shelters for potential weather protection will often collapse after a short period of time. 

The lack of veterinary treatment also constitutes a food safety concern. When existing injuries are not treated and extensive open wounds persist, pathogens may spread through the horse’s body. Bacteriological sampling is then necessary to determine if the meat is still safe for human consumption. 

An audit published by the European Commission in December 2019, found out that some Canadian slaughterhouses do not comply with EU rules on traceability, implying a risk for public health as well as animal welfare. Tierschutzbund Zürich and the Animal Welfare Foundation’s investigation in Uruguay and Argentina found that, due to a lack of identification and traceability, horses who have been raised for sports, riding, or for the production of equine chorionic gonadotropin (eCG), otherwise known as pregnant mare's serum gonadotropin (PMSG), can find their way into meat production. These animals might have been treated with substances such as steroids or growth promoters, meaning that their meat would not be safe for human consumption. There are similar concerns over imports of horse meat from Australia.

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WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

In some Member States, including Italy, France and Belgium, horsemeat is commonly consumed. In other countries, such as the UK, the thought of eating horses is as unthinkable as eating cats or dogs.

Nevertheless, Europe’s public across the board was shocked by the horsemeat scandal of 2013, when horsemeat was discovered in processed beef products sold by a number of UK supermarket chains. It resulted in a series of product recalls and threw the spotlight on the food industry's supply chain. The scandal led many consumers to question the content of their food and it triggered requests from different organisations and institutions for more extensive information on food labeling.

In 2015, the European Commission launched a report investigating the possibility and need to extend the mandatory indication of the country of origin to milk and to types of meat other than beef, swine, sheep, goat and poultry. The report, which embraced the feasibility to introduce a mandatory indication for horsemeat, concluded that the existing system of voluntary labeling of origin, set out within the Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, adequately addresses consumers' interest on origin information for the meats at stake. Moreover, it stated that consumers' overall willingness to pay for this information appears to be modest and new mandatory labeling obligations would entail additional costs for food business organisations. Nevertheless, various studies demonstrate not only consumers’ demands to be better informed regarding the origin of the food they consume, but also their willingness to pay more for receiving this information.

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

For both the intra-EU trade and imports, few EU health and animal welfare regulations apply to horse meat, which means that the production chain leading up to the moment of slaughter is de facto unregulated unless on national ground. Stricter provisions should be implemented, particularly for processed meat and meat coming from third countries. 

In 2015 the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) adopted a Motion for Resolution urging the EC to follow up with legislative proposals to make the indication of origin mandatory for meat in processed foods in order to restore consumer confidence and help ensure better traceability along the food supply chain.

Furthermore, Members of the European Parliament have urged on many occasions the EC to extend the labelling rules set out in Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. All three resolutions aimed to better inform EU consumers and improve their confidence in food products by making the food supply chain more transparent. The suggestion in all cases was that labelling the country of origin would help to ensure better traceability along the food supply chain thus restoring consumer confidence. Additionally, in 2016, a question for written answer was addressed to the EC regarding the country of origin for meat, asking when the EC would propose a mandatory country of origin labelling for horse meat. 

Finally, since 2017 eight EU Member States have set a mandatory labelling requirement in their national legislation for operators to indicate the country of origin of food products, including processed meat.