Canada’s multi-million dollar horse meat industry might be on the verge of change

by as published on

“Horses should not be food animals, period…”

horse-meat-no-text-2Canada’s multi-million dollar horse meat industry has been described as a dirty little secret, though one that’s not been very well-kept given the regular cropping up of news stories in recent years. Canada slaughtered 66 651 horses in 2014, in five slaughter plants across the country (two of which are in Alberta). Nationally, Quebec is the biggest consumer of horse meat, though you can find it in small pockets throughout the country—typically in European delis;  the vast majority of Canada’s horse meat is exported to Europe. Statistics Canada reports that Canada’s total horse meat exports bring in roughly $80 million per year. (Comparatively, Canada’s beef exports for January to September 2015 alone were well over $1.6 billion.)

At first glance, the differing opinions on horse meat—companion animal or food source—seems to be nothing more than a clash of cultural values.

“It’s a culture thing; I’ve got people that have been eating it for 60, 70, 80 years,” says Dave van Leeuwen. “I’ve got older customers that grew up on this stuff, and sometimes I think there’s people just grabbing at things to get it off the market just because they don’t agree with it.”

Van Leeuwen owns Ben’s Meats and Deli, a local Dutch store that was founded by his grandfather in 1953. Like many Dutch individuals, he grew up eating horse meat: smoked, thin-sliced horse meat is a staple sandwich ingredient in the Netherlands. Van Leeuwen describes it as akin to prosciutto in the way that it’s prepared (cured and smoked, as opposed to cooked), though not in flavour; he describes the taste as very lean, rich and salty. Sliced horse lunch meat is van Leeuwen’s fourth-best-selling meat in the store; he sells about 60 to 65 pounds of it each month.

Critics of Canada’s horse slaughter acknowledge the horse’s position as a companion animal in our culture, but that’s actually not the first—or even second—argument against this practice. The main charge levied by critics against the horse meat industry is that it could contain traces of veterinary drugs that are unsafe for human consumption. The most common of these is phenylbutazone (PBZ), an anti-inflammatory colloquially called “bute.” PBZ is banned by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as it can cause potentially fatal blood diseases in humans. While the CFIA claims that its personnel perform daily inspections in all federally registered meat establishments, and that they test horses regularly for PBZ, a European audit in 2014 caught Canadian horse meat tainted with traces of the drug. It’s not known how long PBZ stays in the horse’s system; a 2010 article published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal stated that traces of PBZ will remain in horse meat for a very long and undetermined period of time.

“Just about everybody who has a horse eventually gives their horse phenylbutazone,” Sinikka Crosland says. Crossland is the executive director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC), a non-profit group she co-founded in 2004 with the goal of banning Canada’s horse-slaughter industry.

“It’s a drug that should not ever find its way into the food chain,” she explains. “Yet, at the same time, the Canadian government just turns a blind eye to the fact that a lot of these horses going through the system actually have very likely had bute at some point in their lives. … As far as we’re concerned, there’s no way to control that. Horses should not be food animals, period.”

All animals sold to slaughter houses must have documentation identifying their history of drug treatments, but Crosland notes that there are still large gaps in actually verifying this information and it only goes back 180 days. Further, a Global News story in March 2014 revealed that the CFIA only tests an average of 385 samples per year since 2010—less than 0.5 percent of the total horses slaughtered annually in Canada.

The humane aspect of the horse slaughter is also of significant concern to the CHDC.

“We think that it’s a horrifically inhumane industry,” Crosland says. “The undercover footage that we’ve looked at, year after year from various slaughterhouses in Canada, show that the horses suffer greatly when they’re in that kill box. … You see them shaking, a head-to-toe shake, and they’re trying to get out of that kill box; they’re rearing; they’re doing everything possible to try to defend themselves. They can smell the blood; they often don’t clean up between horses; they just pump them through.”

This stands in marked contrast to van Leeuwen’s view of these practices. He notes that he’s visited slaughterhouses before and that they strive to ensure the animals aren’t frightened, because it will negatively impact the quality of the meat.

“There’s something in beef called a dark cutter,” he explains. “It’s been traced back to something called pre-slaughter stress syndrome. If you put an animal in stress before it is killed, the meat can toughen up and it won’t go through rigor mortis process, and it won’t break down. They don’t want that, because it ruins the meat.”

However, van Leeuwen also acknowledges that in horse slaughter, as with any other industry, there will be both good and bad individuals, and that sometimes the proper practices may not always be followed.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Canada’s horse meat industry is the export of live horses to Japan. Raw horse sashimi is a delicacy in Japan, and live horses are sold on the Japanese market for a high price. To ensure the meat is as fresh as possible, these horses are shipped live via air freight, in conditions that Crosland describes as deplorable—they are overcrowded, sometimes three to four animals per wooden crate (when Canada’s own laws dictate only one per crate) and have food and water withheld for days (up to 36 hours within Canada’s borders, but once they hit international airspace, the clock resets). As reported by Statistics Canada, as of November 2014, Canada had shipped 6976 live horses to Japan, an increase of only five percent from 2013—though that number increased a whopping 560 percent between 2012 and 2013.

In May 2014, NDP member of parliament Alex Atamanenko introduced Bill C-571, which would amend the Meat Inspection Act to ban the slaughter of any horse without a medical record containing all treatments over the course of its lifetime. Effectively, this bill would end the slaughter of all horses not raised specifically for human consumption. The bill was voted down, though Crosland was heartened to see that the Liberal MPs voted unanimously in support of the bill. She is optimistic that with Canada’s recent change in government, passing similar legislation will soon be possible.

Even in the absence of any legislation against it, Canada’s horse-slaughter industry is in decline: the number of horses slaughtered has fallen each year since 2008, after a peak caused by a surge in live-horse imports after the US banned horse slaughter in 2007. The US ban was the result of ongoing lobbying by animal welfare groups as well as legal battles between municipalities and abattoirs, which resulted in the passing of legislation to prohibit the agriculture department from spending money on inspecting horse slaughter facilities, effectively killing the practice on American soil. (Over 60 percent of horses slaughtered in Canada are shipped from the US.) Horse meat is becoming harder to find: van Leeuwen used to carry a variety of different cuts like tenderloin and sirloin, but in 2015 only the smoked deli-style horse meat has been available.

Banning Canada’s horse slaughter is not at the top of the list of the legislation changes expected to be enacted by the new Liberal government. (Or, likely, even somewhere around the middle.) There is, however, a decent chance that significant changes to the horse meat industry will occur at some point in the next four years. The average Canadian will likely be unaffected, but it would set a significant legal precedent in our country and clear up a lot of the current ambiguities surrounding the horse-slaughter industry.

Before a total ban on horse slaughter arrives (if it ever does), Canada will most likely see legislation like Bill C-571, which would definitively determine what is now only circumspect, and the crux of the argument against eating horse meat as it exists today: whether the majority of slaughtered horses are byproducts of other industries (rodeos, racing, family pets) as the CHDC maintains—and therefore likely contaminated with PBZ—or whether most of them were already raised for food, as van Leeuwen believes. Given the US’s 2007 ban on horse slaughter, and the EU’s recent ban of horse meat imports from Mexico due to issues with traceability of veterinary records, the North American horse meat industry could potentially collapse. What this will entail on the world scene, however, is much less clear.

“What we sell in Canada is just a drop in the bucket,” van Leeuwen says. “I don’t see it disappearing, no. They have to do something with some of the animals. … I think there is an industry there.”

The CHDC has already considered this, however, and Crosland notes that they and other sympathetic groups would work to ensure all horses find a home in the event of a ban.

“People are always saying, ‘What’s going to happen; for the next 20 years the country’s going to be overrun with horses,’” she says. “No, that’s not going to happen. If slaughter were to end tomorrow, yes there would be lots of horses on the market, and everybody would be scrambling to figure out where those horses are going to go. But when you look at the big picture, overbreeding is the worst problem that adds to the horse population. … Responsibility suddenly would become a way of life in the horse industry.” 


  1. Vile. I’ll tell you, if I were a horse, wolf, bear, bison – I might be killed, but I’d leave the killer with a scar for life.


  2. I have said this before that if Canada didn’t have access to the thousands of US horses most if not all of their slaughter plants would go out of business, or they would have to change over to cattle or sheep. It is impossible for Canada to raise enough horses on their own to supply 4 or 5 slaughter plants going full blast seven days a week. The EU may be on the verge of actually trying what they had suggested a few years ago about the US horses being kept in feed lots for 6 months to clear their systems of drugs. You can’t clear Bute from the horses system that was given the drug, on top of that is that whatever profit the plants would have made off of the horses packaged meat will be zero if they have to be fed for half a year.


    • Hi Barbara,

      That is so true. 66% of the horses slaughtered in Canada last year came from the US, and the six-month feedlot keeping is totally unworkable because not only it would be uneconomical but also because there are whole array of drugs, not just bute, for which no maximum residue levels or withdrawal periods have been established, mainly because they never entirely leave the tissues.

      In addition to that, it must be said that, if the killer buyers / plants were to adhere to EU regulations, the famous six month “clear up” period is actually a trap and a perversion of EU regulations as they are.

      Both the Canadian EIDs and the Mexican affidavits filled in by the killer buyers contain a generic statement indicating that, for a period of at least 180 days, none of the substances from the lists included below were used, and provides in three bullet points a list of active compounds, which broadly corresponds with a selection of substances from Table 2 of Regulation EU 37/2010 and some beta agonists (substances acting as hormonal disrupots). In no part of the document it is mentioned anything about Regulaton EU 1950/2006 or Directive 96/22/EC. This is very important.

      Right, OK. The problem is that both the substances of Table 2 of Regulation EU 37/2010 and the various beta-agonists listed that, as per the EIDs, shouldn’t be used for 180 days prior to slaughter are, pursuant to Regulation EU 37/2010 and Directive 96/22/EC actually BANNED FOR LIFE regadless of withdrawal periods.

      Further, the six-month “clear-up” priod thing often quoted as “EU Regulations” and set forth as a pseudo-legal instrument in the EIDs / affidavits, actually refers to the the substances listed in Regulaton EU 1950/2006, “deemed essentai for equine care by the EU Commission”, and for which a special six-month withdrawal period must be observed. None of such substances are listed in the EIDs / affidavists, which not even mention this regulation. It doesn’t include bute or other drugs, which not having an established minimum residue level are not listed in neither Table 1 (allowed with maximium residue) or Table 2 (banned) of Regulation EU 37/2010, nor in Regulaton EU 1950/2006 (special for equines with a 6 month withdrawal) nor in Directive 96/22/EC (old regulation pertaining to hormone and beta-agonists).

      In short, those horse-killing geniuses at CFIA / slaughter plants (and by extension at SAGARPA, which basically photocopied the Canadian stuff) basically GOT WRONG the list of banned substances. So even if we dispense with the fact these EIDs / KB affividavits are a farce, they are conceptually, inherently, necessarily wrong on themselves, by pure definiton. This pretty much confirms that, whether they pen horses for six months at Bouvry’s horse concentration camp or not, the meat will always be in definace of EU regulations and unsafe to eat.

      This also confirms why, feeding costs considerations aside, no such six month feedlot keeping is made in EU either. They simply source horses from countries rife with fraud where they know the EU passports are false and bogus, namely Romania, Spain and Ireland.


  3. Ok. So if they quit killing then approx 135,000 horses would be out there to go to homes. Without killer buyers we wouldnt have had an issue in the first place. Essentially the people who have to find them Homes would be the killers and the traders. Really? Yes. The majority of these horses are animals stocked up by traders and killers and they are Really the ones who want to know where will their Quick cash profit margin horses go? How dare you leave them holding the bag? Right?. Well….since the truth is Horse Slaughter created cruelty and slacked past anti cruelty laws and allowed abusers to go free their fear of getting to be punished grows as the closure draws near. The fact Every horse is NOT tested for bute and every horse tested for ALL MEDICATIONS is where we have the Real problem. Thats a conversation I have brought for five years and everyone ignores. They DO NOT test EVERY horse for ALL banned substances. PERIOD. Every person that is slaughter supportive states they have been in the plant and its all Perfection. They dont admit the truth or they would lose. These animals suffer and Temple Grandin again says when she is on site herself they do ok. WHEN she is NOT THEY DO WHAT THEY WANT. TEMPLE GRANDIN DOESNT TRUST THEM. We need to stop rationalizing their question and instead look past what will we do but ask WHY ARE THEY NOT PREPARING ON HAVING LESS HORSES ON HAND BOUGHT FOR SLAUGHTER IF THE PLANTS ACCESS MAY END. Its the same story in Canada. They hide their cruelty behind well how do you fix it instead of their being responsible. EVERY CARCASS MUST BE TESTED. THE COSTS Are prohibitive and tests would eliminate horses to be consumed. So they refuse to do it properly. Its a scam.


    • But even if they were tested, the tests would not be the adqueate ones (not all tissues are OK to test as they would be false negatives) and anyways the regualtions are not equivalent. When they are not even able to enforce properly EU regulations in the same EU you then get the idea that this horse eating stuff is a mess… There are some foal farms in some countries but that’s a flop; white meat (foal) is not what the Belgian / Swiss / Dutch customers want, and I don’t see any farmer waiting seven years to get a minimal return on their investments on “meat horse” farms.


  4. Not only does the Canadian Food Inspection Agency turn a blind eye on all food safety violations, forgery, cover up and animal cruetly that are synonym of the horse slaughter industry; they deliberately participate on that and act as enablers of the whole scheme.

    The whole equine identification document scheme is nothing but a sham… a collection of useless, forged documents crafted (and deliberately sanctioned by CFIA) to make the cut of the EU’s FVO auditors and thus continue shipping meat to Belgium and France.

    The EU performed in May last year an audit on Canadian meat production controls (just a couple months before the one on Mexico that led to the ban on Mexican horsemeat imports), for all kinds of meat although it focused mainly on horsemeat, even if that wasn’t the intention.

    Everybody knows the EIDs are a farce and, just like Chavez in NM with the forged health certificates used to ship the Davis’ mustangs to Mexico, they are simply filled in by killer buyers, by the auction staff or simply not filled in at all. The Canadian system is as bad -if not worst- than the Mexican one and, not surprisingly, the report listed a staggering amount of irregularities. The problem is further componunded because CFIA doesn’t have enforcement or police powers over the plants. The whole system is articulated as some sort of ridiculous self regulation scheme, in which they plants and KBs are responsible for enfocing “penalties” for their own violations! Now talk about the fox guarding the henhouse… even the Mexican SAGARPA is better… they may be ineffectual but at least enfocement was made by an official agency not by an industry boiler room.

    Such irregularities were in essence the same observed in Mexico two months later and that resulted in the enacting of the ban on Mexican imports. Howerver, despite the fact the same food safety and fraud issues were uncovered in Canada, not only did the EU not take action to ban Canadian horsemeat imports, but also withheld the report for over a year… under the excuse of secret ongoing negotiations with Canada (which turned to be for a bogus bandaid to the phony EIDs, basically an EID for the EID, continuing the pile of bogus, fake documents ad infitium, allowing killer buyers Bottom line: CFIA and the Canadian government used all their muscle to hard press FVO inspectors and led them through a carefully staged show to get a pass and continue shipping meat to the EU, despite the fact is is as bad as Mexican one, specially taking into account that, just like in Mexico, 66% of the horses slaughtered in Canada come from the US (44,005 in 2014). CHDC put it quite clearly here:


  5. Quote from that Leeuwen:

    «“There’s something in beef called a dark cutter,” he explains.»

    False… they deliberately stress the horses as much as possible to produce adrenaline because, according to eitehr a Belgian or Swiss horsemeat peddler (can’t remember now), that produced a special highly-sought after “flavor”. Sick…


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