Adrienne Tanner as published on Macleans
The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition is waging a court battle to end Canada’s role as an exporter of live horses and frozen horsemeat for human consumption
To be sure, not everyone shares the revulsion. Horsemeat, or chevaline as it is called in French, can still be found in specialty butcher shops and grocery stores in Quebec and on the menus of a few high-end Montreal restaurants. The real money, though, is in the overseas market; the live horse trade represents $20 million in sales for Canadian shippers. Frozen horsemeat exports from this country were worth $49 million in 2018, including horsemeat, ass, mule and hinny (male horse-female donkey cross). The top importers: Japan, the U.S. and France.
The continuing demand in the U.S. is striking, considering horses are no longer shipped out of that country for slaughter. Animal rights activists south of the border applied so much pressure to horse slaughterhouses—some burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances—that most closed. But it was the lobby campaign targeting federal politicians that killed the industry. “There were movie stars speaking out, Willie Nelson and Bo Derek, lots of people stepping forward and saying we can’t agree with this,” Crosland says. Instead of outlawing the sale of horsemeat for food, Congress simply stopped funding inspectors for the meat, effectively halting domestic sales in 2007.
In Canada, the coalition’s efforts did not meet with the same success. Until the pictures surfaced, the group had focused its efforts on stopping the slaughter of horses in Canada because the numbers were so much greater than live horse shipments. Everything changed when the airport shots surfaced. “We looked at it and said that’s against the law, how can they be doing that?” Crosland says.
Rebeka Breder, a Vancouver animal law lawyer who took on the case, says there are sound reasons for the regulations around crate size and segregation. Horses are susceptible to panic and don’t balance well without a separator to lean on. “If there’s nothing there—and we know this has happened—horses can fall,” she says. If one goes down in a crowded crate, the ensuing commotion can result in the animal being trampled to death by its panicked neighbours. The animals are even more prone to panic and falling if they feel something brush the tops of the heads, she says. Canadian Food Inspection Agency records filed as part of the coalition’s court case show nine horses died during transport in two incidents between 2008 and 2013, six during one flight.
In its response to the suit, the government argues regulations give staff broad discretionary powers to circumvent the segregation requirements. Since 2017, the CFIA has been operating under an interim policy that allows a veterinarian to sign off on groups of horses travelling together, so long as they have been observed to be able to get along. It also claims the old regulations will soon be redundant—new ones set to take effect in February will no longer include the segregation requirement. The government suit states the old rule is “deemed to be no longer relevant and is not based on science or animal behaviour.”
Still, if the U.S. is any example, the court of public opinion may matter more than the one where the case is being heard. Known taboos against eating horsemeat date back to a piece of Babylonian script detailing a conversation between a horse and ox, where the horse states, “my flesh is not eaten,” says Susanna Forrest, author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History. Horses were expensive, prestigious and connected with war, the author says; that, she believes, is how they came to be prohibited for human consumption…(CONTINUED)