Canada’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.”