European Commission monitors have “serious concerns” about Canada’s ability to track health and treatment of horses
Exported Canadian horsemeat intended for human consumption cannot be trusted to be free of toxic drugs, according to a recently released European audit that cites “serious concerns” about the integrity of Canada’s food safety measures.
Among the reported findings, auditors discovered that slaughterhouse tests conducted two years ago on horse carcasses poised to enter the human food chain showed residues of prohibited substances, including a commonly used veterinary medicine called “bute.” Phenylbutazone, or bute, has been linked to bone-marrow disease in humans if eaten in meat.
“It cannot be guaranteed that horses (slaughtered in Canada) have not been treated with illegal substances within the last 180 days before slaughter,” the audit states.
The report also described the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the country’s food safety watchdog, as having “shortcomings” in its ability to accurately trace horses’ identities and complete medical histories.
All horses butchered in Canada for export as human food, including horses imported from the United States, must be accompanied by an equine identification “passport” completed by the animal’s last owner. Owners must truthfully declare on these signed affidavits that their slaughter-bound animals have not been given prohibited drugs for the previous six months and are, therefore, eligible to become human food.
A 2013 Star investigation found these passports, called Equine Information Documents, are open to fraud and error. In European countries, in contrast, horse ownership and medical histories are tracked from birth.
European auditors, who police the meat coming into their market, gathered information from Canadian slaughter facilities during a two-week inspection in May of 2014. In their report, auditors expressed doubt about the ability of Canada’s food safety regulator to always provide untainted horsemeat to European Union markets.
“There are serious concerns in relation to the reliability of the controls over both imported and domestic horses destined for export (to EU markets),” the European report states.
Auditors also found that in Canada “there are no official checks to verify the veracity of the (equine passports) or whether the horses actually match the identifications registered” on the passports.
“The information contained in several (equine passports) checked by the … audit team appeared incomplete, unreliable or false. It can therefore not be ensured that horses slaughtered in Canada for export to the EU have not been treated with substances which are not permitted in the EU, in particular hormonal growth promotants.” Testosterone was mentioned as a prohibited growth hormone in EU meat.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, responding to written questions from the Star, declared that horsemeat exported from Canada is safe to eat.
“Canada has a strong and robust food safety inspection system in place,” the agency said in statement.
“This includes effective ante and post mortem verification and frequent sampling and testing of meat to detect residues with CFIA inspectors and veterinarians present on a daily basis. The number of samples taken is consistent with international standards.”
The federal food safety agency also stated it “welcomes feedback from the audit and is committed to addressing opportunities for improvement identified within the report.”
Horsemeat is Canada’s top red meat export to European countries.
The audit team attached to the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office evaluated the sanitary measures and control systems in place for fresh meat exports (including horse, bison and cattle) from Canada to Europe.
With respect to horses, the European team visited unnamed slaughterhouses, feedlots and one border crossing (the majority of horses killed annually in Canada are imported from the United States).
The vulnerability of Canada’s Equine Information Document was also a key concern in a 2010 European audit. That report found Canada’s ability to trace prohibited drugs in food-bound horses “is inadequate” to protect consumers.
Canada’s equine document is the first step in protecting the public from drug-tainted horse meat. A previous Star investigation found the horse passport that Canada relies upon to keep toxic meat off dinner tables around the world is easily compromised. The Star obtained 10 passports in 2013; nine were incomplete or error-riddled.
The 16 carcasses with bute residues identified in the recent audit were tested in 2013 at one unnamed slaughterhouse. The auditors noted the slaughterhouse operator conducted its own investigation of the owners of the 16 horses who submitted the non-compliant equine passports.
Auditors noted that while “the CFIA puts the responsibility for follow-up of non-compliances largely on the shoulders of the slaughterhouses, the CFIA does not always fulfill its obligations for verifying and ensuring the effectiveness of the follow-up investigations and corrective actions.”