Source: Mary Ormsby and Dale Brazao Staff Reporters of THESTAR.com
“I’m just buying the horse for the (meat) plant and that’s it”
Backstreet Bully, a former Frank Stronach racehorse, had been given a drug linked to bone-marrow disease in humans and yet was slaughtered at a Quebec abattoir in January, though it is unclear whether his meat entered the food chain. Photo by Michael Burns
The horse “passport” Canada relies on to keep toxic meat off dinner tables around the world is open to fraud and error, a Star investigation reveals.
Using undercover reporters, the Star found problems with passports — which are supposed to detail a horse’s complete medical history — for several horses headed to the slaughterhouse.
The Star also obtained 10 passports, nine of which were incomplete or mistake-filled.
In some cases, signatures did not match the names of people claiming to be the horse’s owner. In other interactions witnessed at a busy Waterloo-area auction house, the document was partially filled out by an auction-house worker instead of the owners.
What was seen at auction confirms the findings of an international audit obtained by the Star: that Canada’s ability to trace prohibited drugs in food-bound horses “is inadequate” to protect consumers. Some common horse medications, like “bute” and nitrofurazone, are linked to causing bone-marrow disease and cancer in people if eaten in meat.
Canada’s equine information document is the first step in protecting the public from drug-tainted meat. The document is a type of animal passport that relies on voluntary ownership disclosure of information such as a horse’s physical description, its primary use — racehorse, for example — and drug history.
About $90 million in horsemeat from more than 80,000 animals is exported from Canada annually. Each horse to be slaughtered is to have a passport stating it is free of drugs that would be dangerous to humans if consumed. Horsemeat is a common dish eaten in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Quebec, and is even available at select restaurants in Toronto.
Concerns over public exposure to tainted meat has intensified in recent years as thousands of racehorses — raised on powerful drugs to boost performance — enter the slaughter pipeline, most of them coming from the United States into Canada since the closure of U.S. slaughterhouse facilities in 2007.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s cash-strapped racing industry has fewer tracks, race dates and prize money than a year ago — rendering thousands of racing thoroughbreds, standardbreds, quarter horses and their breeding stock unnecessary.
European Union food safety regulators have pushed Canada for tighter passport and drug-testing controls for domestic and American horses. But the Star’s investigation, where we examined specific cases, found horses with drug histories that should prevent them from becoming food can easily slip through the system.
In two cases tracked by the Star, Backstreet Bully, a former Frank Stronach racehorse, and Holly, a 23-year-old trail horse, were sold at the Ontario Livestock Exchange auction near Waterloo with false or misleading claims on their passports.
Backstreet Bully was slaughtered in Quebec in January, though it is unclear whether his meat entered the food chain — neither the government or slaughterhouse officials would tell us. Backstreet Bully had been given multiple doses of phenylbutazone (bute) and nitrofurazone during his life.
Holly narrowly escaped the same fate in March, rescued from a meat buyer’s holding pen when the horse was tracked down and purchased for $805. Holly had also been given bute and nitrofurazone just weeks before she was sold at auction. (Read the Star’s full account of Holly’s rescue in Saturday’s Star.)
“If you come right down to the bottom of this and the majority of these racehorses have had some of these (prohibited) drugs administered, what good are any documents, really?” said B.C. New Democrat Alex Atamanenko, who is pushing a private member’s bill, C-322, to severely restrict horse slaughter in Canada.
The Star’s undercover investigation took reporters to the Tuesday horse sales at the Ontario Livestock Exchange. To see how carefully passports were completed by horse owners, Star reporters mingled with the public and horse dealers on two separate trips.
Dozens of horses were trucked in both mornings from around the province and herded from trailers into auction-house holding pens. Lot numbers were glued to their sides to identify them to the public, who wandered around the pens studying the animals until the noon bidding began. In the sales ring, there was little vigilance of passport accuracy; even when the auctioneer announced to potential buyers that the owners’ names and signatures didn’t match on some forms, those horses were still sold.
Auction houses are not responsible for overseeing passport accuracy; that is the role of slaughterhouse operators, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the country’s food safety watchdog. However, it is the horse owner’s duty to provide full and correct identity and medical history information for their animal; making false statements is illegal.
Most of the purchasing at the auction was done by slaughterhouse suppliers like Jeff Grof and Jonathan Lalonde, who are commonly called “kill buyers” — although farmers and families can pick up bargain-basement animals for pennies a pound. One dirty colt, with no takers, finally sold for $5.
“I’m just buying the horse for the (meat) plant and that’s it,” said Lalonde, who estimates he purchases between 25 and 30 horses every Tuesday from the auction, known to insiders simply as OLEX.
“When we’re buying the horses, they are supposed to have the papers filled out by the old owner,” he told the Star in a recent phone interview.
Lalonde bought Backstreet Bully for about 26 cents a pound on Jan. 8 and Holly for about 46 cents a pound on March 26. Unlike Backstreet Bully, who went directly to slaughter, Holly had a few days’ grace in an Ottawa-area feedlot because Lalonde thought he could resell her for $700, plus $105 for board — double what he reportedly paid for her at auction.
Many powerful veterinary drugs given to sport horses are prohibited in animals destined to become food because those drugs can be toxic to people. The passport is mandatory paperwork for slaughter-bound horses but additional information, such as veterinary records to support drug-free claims, is not required.
A five-page government passport template is available online but it is not mandatory to use that version. The horse industry is permitted to create a shorter form — usually a single sheet of paper, the Star found — that excludes some questions suggested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
European Commission auditors twice visited Canadian slaughterhouse facilities in 2010 and 2011, to inspect areas from sanitation to drug-testing procedures for a variety of animals. With horses, auditors found particular fault with passports accompanying American animals trucked to slaughterhouses from the border.
“Those horses imported from the United States of America for direct slaughter, the equine identification documents received were not reliable, with verification only being made possible by residue (drug) testing,” the 2011 audit states.
The passport “doesn’t provide even a modicum of reassurance” that all horses are safe to eat, says lawyer and author Bruce Wagman, a San Francisco animal law expert who has studied the European audits.
Wagman calls the Canadian slaughter system unreliable, dangerous to the global food supply and one to avoid emulating should the U.S. resume slaughtering horses for human consumption after a seven-year shutdown, as is being proposed.
“The EID is not serving the purpose it’s purportedly intended to do, which is to ensure no adulterated meat goes into or out of the country,” said the lawyer.
“It can’t, because the document doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Wagman contends passports are “prone to abuse” by people “motivated by financial gain and have no way, really, of accurately filling out the document because many of them just got these horses within days (of completing the form).”
Wagman is petitioning federal U.S. food agencies on behalf of animal welfare groups — including the Humane Society of the United States — to drastically tighten federal drug requirements should horse slaughter south of the border be revived.
Nearly 300,000 horses have been slaughtered at Canadian plants since 2010, when the equine information document was introduced to better identify animals and the drugs. The European Union, whose member states trace domestic equine from birth to death with lifetime passports, has for years pushed for tighter horsemeat vigilance in Canada.
A proper passport system would do a great deal to protect the public, people involved in the horse world say, particularly as more and more horses are slaughtered. One equine expert recently estimated that Canada’s overall horse population of about 900,000 will be reduced to about 600,000 over the next few years because of reduced racing in Ontario.
Secrecy surrounds the passports once a horse reaches the slaughterhouse. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency can only access passports stored at the country’s four federally registered equine slaughter facilities.
Federal rules state that slaughterhouse operators “shall investigate incidences of potential (passport) falsification and take necessary action,” according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It was unclear what slaughterhouses are to do if they find a problem and the government agency refused to disclose how many, if any, people have been prosecuted for passport fraud.
Jonathan Lalonde, who supplies Quebec abattoirs, told the Star he sometimes phones horse owners to supply the missing passport information and writes it in himself. Otherwise, the horse may be rejected at the slaughterhouse.
Equine Canada has been working on a birth-to-death traceability system for all horses in Canada built on existing industry data tracking programs (like racehorse registration papers) and may include the use of microchip implants. The system, called CanEQUID, would also track horses to be processed for meat. But government funding to fast track CanEQUID has not materialized for the past five years since horses aren’t considered a “priority species” for food safety and livestock traceability, according to Equine Canada.
Horsemeat is a lucrative business. It is Canada’s No. 1 red meat export to Europe; Canada supplies the continent with about 24 per cent of its total.
The top five purchasers of Canadian-processed horsemeat in 2012 were: Switzerland ($22 million); Japan ($19.8 million); France ($19.7 million); Belgium ($17.6 million) and Kazakhstan ($6.8 million).
The U.S. was next in line, spending nearly $2 million on horsemeat — but for zoo animals. Horsemeat is not allowed to be sold commercially for human consumption in the U.S.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency insists the current system is safe because government inspectors at the privately owned abattoirs will not allow any horse with incomplete or inaccurate passports to be slaughtered for food.
“The CFIA’s top priority is food safety,” the agency wrote in an email to the Star.
In addition, agency inspectors conduct visual examinations and random drug testing of horses and carcasses to ensure they are free of banned drugs. Some horses are targeted for testing if an inspector has cause for concern. Testing is so sensitive, drug residues can be detected in parts per billion — trace amounts.
In a recent email to the Star, the agency said it is working with the horse industry to “develop measures to enhance equine traceability.”
The agency says it does not directly act on fraudulent passport claims.