“Many thanks to the knowledgeable experts and advocates who shared the facts in this article.” ~ R.T.
Every week, hundreds of horses leave the U.S. bound for slaughter in Canada
SHIPSHEWANA, INDIANA–Tucked away amid the pristine beauty of American Amish country lies one of Canada’s dirtiest secrets.
Near the end of a quaint rural main street, where clip-clopping horses pull carriages and children ride ornate carousel ponies, less fortunate equines are paraded before buyers who supply a burgeoning Canadian slaughter industry.
From the surrounding fields where these horses spent their lives, they will be shipped 1,300 kilometres north across the border to one of four Canadian slaughterhouses specializing in horse meat production.
After long journeys in a cramped transport trucks, they will be killed – shot with a .22 calibre rifle placed between their eyes – and slaughtered, their meat eventually landing on dinner tables in Canada, Europe and Asia.
It’s a $70 million Canadian industry that’s flourishing despite growing concerns over treatment of the animals and a debate over the potential health risk to humans posed by the drugs they are fed.
At one “kill” auction attended by Star reporters last Friday, more than 60 horses were crammed into pens without hay or water in temperatures topping 35 degrees Celsius.
Some kicked and nipped at each other in the unusually cramped quarters where they remained for hours. Others were apparently too weak to fight. The spines and ribs of several jutted out from beneath their hides. A deep red gash on the hip of one gleamed in the dim lights of the barn.
The idea of horses — often viewed as majestic “companion” animals — being slaughtered for food triggers discomfort, even outrage, in Canadians who consider the practice inhumane.
Those in the horse slaughter industry call such assertions naïve, insisting they provide a necessary service, feeding European demand for the exotic meat with a glut of horses whose owners can no longer care for them.
After the U.S. banned horse slaughter for human consumption in 2007 under mounting pressure from animal welfare groups, Canada and Mexico picked up the reins.
Since then, Canada has quietly become a major international horse meat supplier, exporting close to 20,000 tonnes each year to Europe and Asia. Canadians consume another 300 tonnes of horse each year, mostly in Quebec.
A year before the last U.S. horse plant shut down in 2007, Canada slaughtered about 50,000 horses. Since then, the number of horses killed annually has nearly doubled to between 90,000 and 113,000 over the past three years.
Along with that economic windfall have come concerns about the lengthy transportation of horses across the U.S. to Canada and insufficient monitoring of drug residues in meat that could threaten public health.
European Union officials have told Canada to tighten its drug residue surveillance on export meat — including horse — by 2013. And it’s sending inspectors here on an audit mission to examine the issue in September.
“We are confident that we will be able to meet the European Union’s requirements within the identified timelines,” said Alice d’Anjou, a spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in a written response to the Star.
“While Canada acknowledges these legislative and systemic differences, we maintain that the Canadian system is safe. The EU demonstrates its confidence in the Canadian system by continuing to import Canadian meat products.”
The challenges of slaughtering horse for human consumption are unique.
Unlike cattle, pigs and sheep, horses are not typically raised to become food. Almost all are fed a steady diet of drugs and medications specifically indicated to be hazardous for human consumption.
A 2010 U.S. study on animals sent to slaughter found the presence of a particularly troubling drug commonly administered to horses — phenylbutazone (PBZ), an anti-inflammatory used for pain relief.
The drug is banned for human consumption by the U.S., Canada, U.K. and European Union because of documented health hazards, sometimes fatal, including a blood disorder in which the body’s bone marrow doesn’t make enough new blood cells and a condition that triggers chronic bacterial infections.
The study’s researchers found 9,000 pounds of meat from horses “with known exposure to PBZ” sent for human consumption over the five-year study period.
“There appears to be inadequate testing to ensure that horses given banned substances such as PBZ do not enter the slaughter pipeline,” the study concludes. “The lack of oversight to prevent horses given PBZ from being sent to slaughter for human consumption … indicates a serious gap in food safety and constitutes a significant public health risk.”
Ann Marini, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and a co-author of the study, says every horse in the U.S. receives at least one dose of PBZ each year.
“There’s no horse in (the U.S.) that is eligible for slaughter for human use,” she said in an interview. “It’s a health regulation violation…. This is now Canada’s problem. And nothing has been done to end this. We’re sending contaminated horse meat to the people eating it. We’re equally liable.”
Use of PBZ is equally common in Canadian horses, says Sinikka Crosland, executive director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition which is seeking a ban on horse slaughter in Canada.
“It’s like you and I taking an aspirin,” she says. “It’s the drug of choice when a horse is showing pain.”
She’s given both of her horses the drug to deal with inflammation or lameness, she says.
“If I were a liar, I could send them along (to slaughter) and say they haven’t had any drugs and who would question me?”
The few publicly-available horse meat test results conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have not indicated health hazards related to PBZ.
The contradiction lies in the debate over whether the testing methods are sufficient to ensure public safety.
And agency officials say scrutiny over horse medication monitoring was tightened last year when they began requiring all slaughterhouse operators killing horses for human consumption to have complete identity and medical records for all animals presented for slaughter.
But Marini and other experts say those testing and monitoring measures fall well short of ensuring public safety.
“When you slaughter as many horses as Canada does, there’s no way that any agency can test every carcass. So you have to be selective in the carcasses that you test. Clearly, it’s a hit-or-miss kind of thing.”
Horse owners selling their animals in the Shipshewana auction are asked to fill out a single page form asking about any drugs or vaccines administered to the animal or diagnosed illnesses during the previous 180 days.
But there appears to be little scrutiny over the answers provided. A reporter posing as a seller was told the paperwork could be filled out quickly the morning of the auction.
“(Veterinarians) do rely a lot on the records of the horses kept by the owners coming into the country and there are questions about how accurate or up to date they are,” said Gary Corbett, president of the federal union representing slaughterhouse veterinarians. “It’s at the discretion of the owner. There’s no regulatory framework to monitor it. It’s kind of like an honour system.”
Meanwhile, animal rights activists have alleged that the tens of thousands of U.S. horses forced to endure long-distance journeys in transport trucks to Canada and Mexico face torturous conditions and, sometimes, death.
Compared to traditional food animals, horses are more skittish, territorial and top heavy – all factors that make their movement across the continent cruel, says John Holland, president of the U.S.-based Equine Welfare Alliance.
“You can put 34 cows in a truck and you can take them out at the end of the trip without incident. Put 34 horses that don’t know each other in a truck on the highway and they’ll begin kicking and biting each other and you can end up dragging two carcasses out at the other end,” he says.
“Canada has had a very negative turn in the way people view them on animal issues because of this. Canada is seen as an opportunist in the way it has filled its plants with these animals after the U.S. closed its doors to the practice.”
As the Shipshewana “kill” auction begins, a group of about 50 men gather at one end of the auction barn, some looking down from a catwalk, others standing in the auction circle where horses are escorted in one by one to the sound of an auctioneer’s voice calling out for bids.
Within 30 seconds, sometimes less, horses are introduced, sold and removed after having been barely viewed by their new owner. There is no mention of proper paperwork, age or breeding.
No one cares.
Within hours, many of these animals will be herded onto massive transport trucks heading north.
Jeron Gold is the most prominent horse buyer each week at the Shipshawana auction. The Michigan-based “kill buyer” supplies the Richelaeu Meat plant in Massueville, Que., with up to three weekly deliveries of about 30 live horses each time, according to a plant employee interviewed by the Star who declined to give his name.
Gold surveys each horse entering the ring, often giving subtle nods to the auctioneer of his interest. By the time it’s over, he has purchased about 20 horses.
Horses here generally sold for less than $200. Some went for as little as $30.
The economics are compelling.
While those in the industry declined to reveal the profit margins on “kill horses” sold for slaughter, sources interviewed by the Star and receipts from previous sales show payouts of between 40 and 95 cents per pound.
Typically, that means “kill buyers” earn between $450 and $600 per horse depending on an animal’s weight and market price fluctuations.
By the time the meat reaches retail, it’s selling for upwards of $12 per pound.
About four hours after the Shipshewana “kill” auction ends, a large blue 18-wheel truck toting a trailer pulls up to the rear of the auction house where Gold’s horses have remained with no signs of water or hay.
A driver files them onto the truck and starts heading north into Michigan where Gold’s Roping J Ranch sits along a gravel road north of Detroit on the way to the Sarnia border crossing into Canada.
At one point in the journey, the driver pulls into a gas station parking lot. The entire truck shakes violently for several minutes from the horses inside.
After the four-hour trek to the ranch, the horses are unloaded into a pen where they are watered and fed.
At 10:50 a.m. on Sunday, ranch workers load a trailer full of horses from the pen onto the truck which pulls out of the ranch for the long drive north.
The truck won’t reach the front gates of the Richelieu plant for another 22 hours — following a border check and an overnight stop in a gas station parking lot — during which the animals remain standing without being fed or watered.
The truck is “sealed” by a veterinarian at the border with a yellow band on the back door. The band must remain in place until broken by the federal vet at the slaughterhouse plant.
In an interview, Gold said he is a horse lover who is doing the animals a favour by rescuing them from neglect by owners who can’t care for them any longer.
“There is an end life for everything. I’d like to know what people want to do with all these horses that nobody wants. I’d like somebody to answer that. I see everyday horses mistreated, skinny, didn’t have proper care and there’s nobody to take care of them. Who’s going to take care of them and pay the bills?”
It’s a rationale that has been often debated, both inside and outside the kill pen.
Devon and Sonia Morris worked at Norval Meats in Proton Station – a federally licensed horse slaughter house about two hours north of Toronto, until it was destroyed by fire last year.
The debate over the appropriateness of slaughtering horses for human consumption persists within their 22-year marriage long after the embers at Norval have cooled.
Devon, 44, is the soft-hearted horse lover, raised on the backstretch at Woodbine racetrack. He was able to cut a deal with his Norval bosses – he’d work on the kill floor skinning and gutting horses – but he wouldn’t kill them. “I refused to pull the trigger.”
“They are not meant to be eaten,” he says.
He told his boss, “we should stick to beef, but he just blew me off. There’s a demand. There’s money in it.” And Devon needed some of that money. “I’ve got a family,” he says. Devon even signed a local petition aimed at stopping the slaughter of horses at Norval.
His wife Sonia, 36, who worked at Norval as an in-house inspector, holds a different opinion. “Horse meat is no different than eating beef or pork,” she says.
Gold, who has been in the horse buying and selling business for more than 30 years — selling riding and show horses alongside his slaughter business — sees few options in dealing with the horse supply.
“I don’t feel a horse is a pet,” he said. “It’s livestock…. There is no viable solution in the United States or Canada for the horse that nobody wants.”
But he’s no consumer of the product he supplies to slaughterhouses. He’s never eaten horse, he says.
“It doesn’t interest me one iota.”
The oversupply problem finds its solution at the end of a residential street in Massueville, a picturesque Quebec town dominated by church steeples overlooking a park at the centre of town where children play on a sunny summer morning.
A few hundred metres away, 500 to 600 horses are slaughtered each week at the plant, said the plant employee who confronted reporters this past Monday outside the plant gates.
Three quarters of the horses come from the U.S., he said. After slaughtering, the meat is shipped to grocery stores across Quebec, to European countries such as France, Switzerland and Italy, and as far as Japan.
Reporters’ requests to tour the plant were denied. And company officials did not respond to a request for a formal interview.
Richelieu is one of two federally-licensed plants that slaughter horses in Quebec. There’s another two in Alberta.
While there have been investigations of the four plants between 2000 and 2011, there have been no prosecutions, said a CFIA spokesperson.
Some of Richelieu’s horse meat also ends up in Ontario, including restaurants such as Toronto’s La Palette restaurant on Queen St. W.
The bistro’s menu offers two horse meat selections: “Cheval” (hay roasted tenderloin), and “Quack ‘n’ Track,” a four-ounce horse tenderloin combined with a leg of duck confit.
Eatery owner Shamez Amlani says his supplier of “viande chevaline” is Richelieu in Quebec.
While some diners are offended enough to walk out of the restaurant and even write letters of protest, Amlani is certain the lost business is countered by what he calls a “cult” of horsemeat connoisseurs who appreciate the taste and texture of the rusty red meat.
So convinced of its origin, he tells diners the horsemeat he serves comes from horses that are bred and raised specifically for their meat.
“They enjoy a better life than factory cows. I am 99.9% certain of that,” insists Amlani, painting a bucolic scene of horses grazing idly in Quebec’s lush countryside.
The scenes of trailers jammed with dozens of work horses spanning hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres paints a very different portrait.
There are more humane and responsible options, say critics.
“Horses have owners. They have a choice to sell their horses to slaughter where they make money or call the vet and have them chemically euthanized,” says neurologist Marini who grew up around horses in Connecticut.
“People have to take personal responsibility.”
Animal rescue societies and adoption are other alternatives to horse slaughter, says Canadian horse advocate Crosland.
“If we ended slaughter of horses in Canada tomorrow, those who are over-breeding horses would have to become more responsible. Responsibility would become part of the horse industry.”
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