European Voice <> wrote:Volume 7 Number 7
26 February 2004

Tainted horsemeat for dinner, anyone?

By Karen Carstens

WHILE the European Commission this week suspended the import of live poultry, eggs and pet birds from the US until 23 March, after an outbreak of bird flu in Texas, there are more than avian influenza issues involved in transatlantic imports into the EU.

Fears exist that 'tainted' horsemeat could still be finding its way onto some Europeans' dinner plates, a US-based network of animal rights activists, veterinarians and breeders has warned.

While there is no culture of eating horsemeat in North America, bar perhaps Quebec, there certainly is in Europe, primarily in France, Belgium and Italy.

This meat, however, could be more cause for concern from a food safety standpoint than any other meat being exported from America to Europe, the National Horse Protection Coalition (NHPC) has warned.

Up to two-thirds of this meat comes from beyond the EU's borders, via live transports of horses and donkeys from eastern Europe, or as fresh or frozen meat from North America.

In 2001, 133,353 live horses for slaughter (including 61,479 from Romania and 40,369 from Poland) were imported into the EU - 95% went to Italy, which boasts the EU's biggest slaughterhouses, 4% to France, less than 1% to Belgium and 0.5% to Germany.

But the majority of fresh horsemeat is sourced from outside the EU, predominantly from the Americas.
In the United States, there are at present only two large slaughterhouses remaining. Based in Texas, one is French and the other is Belgian-owned and both produce meat destined for export only.

US-based activists claim, because there are no controls on horsemeat in the country, that the animals being slaughtered - often old racehorses - are pumped up with medication that would never be given to any other animals intended for consumption.

While this medication eventually does leave the animals' bodies, it normally takes at least four weeks - but possibly even twice as long - for them to be completely free of contamination.

In the EU, all horses and ponies must carry an 'equine passport', which would allow horsemeat to be traced as well. But it does not apply to animals coming from third countries.

Beate Gminder, spokeswoman for Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne, said member states routinely conduct their own quality controls via random sampling and testing procedures.

This means that the French and Belgian governments would be responsible for checking the meat that they import from Texan slaughterhouses.

She also dismissed allegations that tainted horsemeat is entering the EU. "We have had no scares or alarm bells ringing about this," Gminder said, adding that it had not been a priority issue for the Commission in the past, nor did it look likely to be one any time soon.

The equine passport was included in a landmark pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicine 'review package' adopted by the European Parliament in December 2003.

However, Carol Chapman, owner of the Texan equine sanctuary 'The Last Refuge' and author of Tall Ears and Short Tales, a book devoted to horse behaviour, insisted that the animals slaughtered in America are "not fit for consumption".

Chapman, a member of the NHPC, told this newspaper that "no studies have been done" in the US on the long-term effects of the shots and drugs routinely administered to horses, at least none comparable to studies undertaken on the nation's cattle, pigs and poultry populations.

And if any type of 'national ID', such as the equine passport in Europe, existed in the US, she added, it would "show that the animals are not safe to go into the food chain". Chapman also pointed out that, in the US, "there is no law that says these horses have to be kept safe".

But Byrne's spokeswoman Gminder countered that all meat imported into the EU is subject to a 'residue monitoring programme' whereby member states must take random samples of imports and report back to the Commission if they find anything out of order.

Moreover, Gminder said, the department of agriculture has its own additional monitoring system specifically tailored toward all EU-bound US meat exports, as different medications are used on animals on both side of the Atlantic.

"But if one substance is banned in the EU but used in the US, this does not necessarily mean that it is dangerous," Gminder explained, "because [the drugs] are eventually broken down [in the animals' system]".

A bill is currently under discussion in Congress to ban the slaughter of horses completely in the United States.

Copyright 2004 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.