Scientists for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy have made a number of recommendations for improvements to current EU welfare legislation for horses and other animals during transport. At the top of this list of interest to equine welfare advocates is a recommendation to cap transport of horses bound for slaughter at 12 hours.
The report noted that review of studies conducted on slaughter-bound horses both in Europe and North America showed that the welfare of slaughter horses can be very poor, with high rates of disease and injury before transport actually takes place, although even greater levels occur during and after transport.
As background: in 2005, the European Union laid down provisions to protect the welfare of animals during transport to slaughter. EFSA's recent findings will inform a report the European Commission is due to present in 2011 to the European Parliament and to the EU Member States on the impact of the 2005 regulation.
The EFSA document, Scientific Opinion Concerning the Welfare of Animals during Transport, was published last week in EFSA Journal and can be downloaded online. The report was brought to the attention of The Jurga Report by the British-based charity World Horse Welfare, whose ongoing research into conditions of horses during transport to slaughter was used for reference by EFSA.
For those unfamiliar with the complaints about horse transport to slaughter in Europe: According to EFSA, in 2007 about 600,000 horses were slaughtered in Europe, most of them following long distance transport of more than 8 hours (mostly from Poland, Romania and Spain) to Italy. The estimated driving time from Warsaw, Poland to Trieste, Italy by car is over 14 hours, without stopping. Trieste would possibly be the closest Italian city to eastern Europe.
According to a new (2011) study of over 2,700 slaughter horses in Europe by David Marlin, 14 percent were unfit for transport at the beginning of their journeys. That number rose to 37% when the horses arrived at their destination. New injuries incurred during transport were recorded in 28% of horses.
Of interest to me in the report was the recommendation that horses travel no more than 12 hours from point of origin to slaughter, but that cattle could travel up to 29 hours. The recommendation for horses applied regardless of whether horses traveled to slaughter over the road or were on board ships or ferries
In addition to the time that horses should be in transport before they are slaughtered, the scientists addressed water and the conditions within the trucks used to haul horses. They said that horses should be supplied with water one hour before and one hour after transport and that all trucks should be equipped with temperature monitoring devices that alert the driver and monitor conditions inside the truck. In addition, since the temperatures recorded by sensors inside the trucks may not reflect the animals' actual body temperature sufficiently, thermal imaging systems inside trucks might be more accurate for recording body temperature, or the use of an implantable RFID sensor in each animal, which would record all sorts of information and tracking of the animal, as well as its body temperature.
According to EFSA, the reviewed scientific literature demonstrated that because of their different levels of aggression, horses should always be transported in individual stalls or pens. The report made an exception for foals which they said should be traveling with their mothers.
Partitions have proven to be necessary not only to avoid overheating, they stated, but also because horses find it relatively difficult to maintain their position during sudden vehicle movements. Experts recommend further scientific research on partition design for their transport.
Jo White, Director of Campaigns at World Horse Welfare, said that the recommendation for a 12 hour journey limit for horses destined for slaughter was extremely welcome. "To have this introduced and then robustly enforced could bring an end to the stress, exhaustion and suffering the charity sees during investigations along Europe's slaughter routes. We're delighted that our evidence was referred to in the final report. We now call on the European Commission to work quickly towards the introduction of short, finite journey limits, which could end the single biggest abuse of horses in Europe."
World Horse Welfare balked, however, at EFSA-suggested changes in specifications for partitions inside horse transport trucks. According to WHW, the report places space allowance very much on the agenda, and references World Horse Welfare's research. However, the charity expressed concern that the recommendation states "space allowances should be given in terms of kg/m2 instead of m2/animal".
According to World Horse Welfare's own research, the weight of a horse is not proportionate to its physical size and frame. For example, a lightly built Thoroughbred could be the same weight as a stocky pony, but their physical dimensions would be very different. World Horse Welfare would urge the European Commission to consider an approach that calculates space in relation to the size of the individual horse rather than its weight.
The report also addresses the factor that long-distance transporting of horses to slaughter may have on disease transmission, in terms of affecting local horse populations along the route. Rest stop stations for horses are located across Europe, and the report suggests that unloading horses may be ill-advised.
As background for US readers, regulations mandating individual partitions in slaughter-bound horse transport trucks were successfully introduced in Europe in 2007, but apparently design specifications were not part of the mandate.
It seems incongruous that EFSA would have so many restrictions on transporting horses to slaughter in Europe and then allow horse meat intended for human consumption to be imported from North America that does not follow those rules. Horse slaughter opponents in North America seemingly could petition EFSA to require enforcement of those regulations in North America, or use US diplomatic channels to do so.
Likewise, horse slaughter proponents could look to EFSA and its regulations for guidance if they do attempt to re-introduce horse slaughter and meat processing for human consumption in the United States. By assuring that any new horse slaughter operations here comply with EFSA regulations, they would be far ahead of any possible future EU import regulation, and show their interest in upgrading equine welfare standards. Since transport horrors always seem to be the Achilles heel of horse slaughter advocacy, endorsing EFSA's transport recommendations might be a good starting point.
It always amazes me how some aspects of hot-button horse issues mirror bigger political issues in the United States. Just as the United States will never return to the halcyon days of white middle-class suburban bliss portrayed in Leave It to Beaver, if horse slaughter is to return to the United States--and I do mean if, not when--it seems unlikely that it can simply return in the format that it operated before the final closings in Illinois and Texas.
What is critically important is what the immediate and long-term future demand for US horsemeat would be, and how that demand (or lack of it) would translate to financial viability of investing in horse slaughter plant rebuilding in the United States. We're not the only country with horses to spare.
The recent collapse of the horse market in Ireland and a glut of horses ruled off the roads in Eastern European countries like Romania might mean that a temporary or extended diminished demand for US horsemeat would place it at a price below the profit margins that slaughterhouse operators enjoyed in the last century, before Eastern European countries were admitted to the EU and borders opened up for the easy transport of horses westward on the motorways. The current burgeoning economy in Germany may mean that the demand for horse meat has decreased in that country, since people can afford beef and other higher-priced meat.
Compliance with EFSA regulations, if they were enforced in North America, might make horsemeat for export completely infeasible.
Throughout the so-called "unwanted horse" discussions, the lack of horse slaughter options has been blamed for depressed horse prices in the United States and a lack of cash-out options for horse owners, as were enjoyed in the past.
A glut of unsellable horses is not just a US problem, but a global problem.
We must not think of the USA as an island. We should be building bridges of communication and information with experts in other countries--welfare organizations, veterinary societies, food scientists, government agencies, as well as NGOs--if for no other reason than to find out what's going on in other places, to other horses, and to find out where in this world things are working, and why.
Read the report.