The shady trade in American horsemeat

Are Europeans eating drugged-up American horses?

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

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Ken Terpenning of Lexington, Kentucky has owned over two-dozen racehorses. But one in particular made a big impression.

“Silky Shark was everything you’d want in a racehorse,” says Terpenning. “He was vibrant, fiery, a very happy horse. On the racetrack, he was a total professional. He earned over $100,000.”

Like any athlete, there was an arc to Silky Shark’s career. But the downward slope was faster than Terpenning could have imagined. The horse had some medical problems that led to lost races, and then Terpenning fell on tough times financially. Terpenning sold the horse to a man he trusted, who continued to race him. But after a stretch of unsuccessful races, it didn’t take long for Silky Shark to wind up in the “slaughter pipeline.”

There are roughly nine million horses in the United States, and every year, people — mostly non-Americans — eat over 100,000 of them. When the U.S. banned horse slaughter five years ago, the trade didn’t stop. Horse buyers merely turned their trucks north and south to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. From there, most of the meat goes to the European Union.

If you’re an American, odds are you disapprove of horse slaughter. But whatever your ethical perspective on eating horses, there are undeniable problems with American horsemeat: the trade route from the U.S. to the EU is riddled with falsified documents, shoddy record-keeping, lax enforcement and meat tainted with drugs people should never consume.

For the past two months we’ve been investigating the shady trade in American horsemeat. Here’s what we’ve found out.

First across the finish line…

In fact, the term “slaughter pipeline” is a misnomer — it gives the impression of a uniform line of horses marching toward the slaughterhouse. In reality, it’s a haphazard and disjunctive affair with no clear starting point, but one definite outcome.

Take a horse like Silky Shark: successful and loved. The health problems that ended his racing career were not life-threatening and he could have led a long life as a field horse. But multiple sales — auction after auction — devalued Silky Shark on paper. By the time he was purchased by a “kill buyer,” the horse that won over 100 grand was probably worth about 100 bucks. A “kill buyer” is what you might imagine: they specialize in buying off the cheapest horses at auctions, then selling them for slaughter. (For a gripping look at how these auctions work, read Lisa Couturier’s “Dark Horse” from Orion. Or for disturbing tales straight from the horse’s mouth, watch “Confessions of a Horse Slaughter Kill Buyer.”)

This all makes cold business sense in racing, where an un-winning horse literally has no value. But you may be surprised to learn that field horses — pets, essentially — are picked off at auctions too. The pony your child rides at the summer carnival? Sometimes it’s cheaper to sell that horse to a kill buyer than it is to feed it through the winter.

More surprising still is where these American horses are slaughtered: Canada and Mexico. Why not slaughter them in the U.S.? Because Congress effectively banned slaughter in this country five years ago, primarily because, as mentioned above, we are not a culture that eats horses, nor do we generally approve of horse slaughter.

What that has resulted in is that more American horses were slaughtered by our neighbors in 2011 than in the U.S. a decade earlier. And, to the dismay of horse lovers, a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office found that horses destined for slaughter now travel farther and under more stressful conditions — more time in a cramped trailer, less water to drink and food to eat — than ever before. Banning horse slaughter in the U.S., in other words, has had the peculiar effect of ensuring just as many American horses are slaughtered, only under less humane conditions.

When horse slaughterhouses closed in the U.S. five years ago, kill buyers diverted the country’s cheapest horses to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses.

A horse is a horse, of course?

This is sad – and for many people just plain wrong - but it’s legal, and plenty of the world is happy to eat our cheap  protein. They would be well-advised, however, to steer clear of American horsemeat.

Under Ken Terpenning’s care, Silky Shark needed surgery on two occasions, and each time the horse was given Phenylbutazone, or “Bute.” Bute is the most commonly administered anti-inflammatory drug for horses; the drug is used so often it’s also called “horse aspirin.” But Bute is also a known human carcinogen. Authorities in the U.S., Canada and the European Union agree: humans should never eat a horse given Bute.

Yet somebody ate Silky Shark.

Sinikka Crosland, Executive Director of the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition, feeds her horses in Westbank, British Columbia, Canada. (Credit: Madonna Hamel)

The only reason we know Silky Shark made it to market is because of an investigation by the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition. The organization’s executive director, Sinnika Crosland, tells Latitude News the NGO furtively gathered documents from a Canadian slaughterhouse and then traced Silky Shark back to the racetrack.

“Silky Shark went to a feedlot operator, a meat dealer,” says Crosland. Meat dealer is another fun colloquialism for kill buyer. “He ended up shipping him up to a slaughterhouse in Quebec in July of 2011.”

The Canadian Horse Defense Coalition posted this information to its website, which is how Ken Terpenning found out.

“I was totally devastated,” says Terpenning. “I cried for probably two or three days.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests some meat for drug residue before it hits the market. Crosland’s organization found that no horsemeat was found to have Bute in it during the month Silky Shark was slaughtered, nor were there meat recalls because of Bute in the months after he was slaughtered.

The Canadian Horse Defense Coalition’s investigation also indicates that the CFIA may not even be testing meat properly, says Nicholas Dodman, Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. In a written statement, the CFIA’s Chief Veterinary Officer told Crosland that the Canadian government tests horse muscle, not horse kidneys, because “equine kidneys are not deemed suitable for human consumption. [Drug residue] from kidneys are of limited use, because acceptability of the meat cannot be inferred from levels in kidney samples. Kidneys are only tested for [Bute] as confirmation in the event of a positive muscle test.”

“That is a stupid argument,” says Dodman. “If [Bute] is in kidney, it means it is in the body and the whole carcass should be discarded.”

This isn’t the first time the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition has put the CFIA on guard. It’s gone undercover not once but twice to take video of horses being treated abysmally at Canadian slaughter facilities, all under the supervision of CFIA veterinarians. The CFIA said it would crack down the first time, then promised again after the second time.  .

The thing is, the CFIA is responsible for ensuring not only Canadian health standards, but European Union standards too. It’s the EU that imports the bulk of the horsemeat slaughtered in Canada. Those EU standards require that a horse be presented to a slaughterhouse with documentation of its drug history for the previous six months. This is done with an Equine Information Document, a one-page form that kill buyers present to the slaughterhouse with the horse. And here’s the problem: the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and American counterparts have found dozens of these forms with incomplete or incorrect information.

“The EID progam has been a complete joke,” says John Holland with the U.S.-based Equine Welfare Alliance. “Canada has no control over the honesty of documentation. Every time they find banned substances, there’s always an EID.”

Dodman agrees: “Any paperwork is probably fallacious. Racehorses are walking pharmacies. They’re given everything under the sun — snake venom, bronchodilators, cortizon, anabolic steroids like baseball players use — anything that’s supposed to improve performance.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency declined to comment on the allegations raised in this story. Canada’s four horse slaughterhouses also declined to comment, although a spokesman from one anonymously acknowledged American horses are a problem.

If you’re a Belgian, try the chicken

So who ate Silky Shark? Impossible to say exactly. Some horsemeat is eaten in Quebec, but the biggest EU importers are Belgium, France and Italy.

Dan Jorgensen is a Member of the European Parliament, where he holds leading positions on two committees that oversee human health, food safety and animal welfare.

“I fear that this horse represents a larger problem,” MEP Jorgensen tells Latitude News.

He’s right: Silky Shark was not alone. A 2010 study from Tufts University (lead author Nicolas Dodman, mentioned above) tracked 18 American racehorses that were all dosed with Bute, all sent to slaughter. Silky Shark was slaughtered in Canada in 2011. And in 2012, inspectors in Belgium found Bute in horsemeat imported from Canada.

Obviously, these are just the documented cases. But MEP Jorgensen is getting, frankly, a little ticked off. Two years ago, he brought this exact issue up – American horses with no documentation being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, then shipped to the European Union — to the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. Since his inquiry, it seems nothing has changed.

“I think it’s quite concerning,” says MEP Jorgensen, “that European consumers might actually be buying and, well, eating horsemeat that we don’t have any reason to believe is healthy.”

The Humane Society International, which advocates for banning horse slaughter altogether, recently assembled a website documenting the horsemeat market in the EU. In the top three EU markets — Belgium, France and Italy — HSI reports a small percentage of the general populace (single digits) eats horse regularly. But it’s worth pointing out that more people may be at risk than horse steak fans given horsemeat is used in processed foods.

“From our point of view,” says Jo Swabe, HSI’s European Union Director, “unless the EC can give assurances to citizens that the horsemeat being exported to the EU meets the safety requirements, they should suspend imports altogether”

In the EU every horse actually has a “passport,” a physical document recording its drug history. The European Commission enforces this system, and the EC’s rules for export nations like Canada and Mexico are scheduled to tighten in 2013. Horse slaughter opponents are hoping the next phase of regulations on export nations look more like the European passport system than the one-page, unverifiable Equine Information Document.

In an email, a European Commission spokesperson says the details for exactly how those new rules will roll out in 2013 are not available yet. The spokesperson also insisted the EC is enforcing its standards outside of the EU through meat testing at its borders and inspections of foreign slaughterhouses.

But the Commission didn’t answer Latitude News’ direct questions about the safety of horsemeat that originates in the U.S., even though in a recent audit of a Mexican slaughterhouse, the Commission acknowledged that it still cannot verify the drug history of U.S. horses. And in blunter language — in a document leaked to Latitude News by a Canadian slaughterhouse — the European Commission said the following: “A long-term solution will have to be found regarding the import of horse meat obtained from animals born and reared in the USA and slaughtered in Canada and Mexico.”

Translation: American horses are a problem.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that record keeping in Mexico is far less transparent than Canada. What we do know is that about the same number of horses in Mexico is slaughtered as in Canada and that of all the horses killed in both countries 70 and 80 percent, respectively, originate in the U.S.

MEP Jorgensen wants answers from the European Commission. And he wants to see fines imposed for violating drug residue rules. He also acknowledges it might be hard for Americans to swallow that the EU could crack down on a U.S. market.

“But the thing is we decide ourselves what it is we want on our market,” he says, “just as you guys decide what you want on your market.”

No solutions for U.S. on horizon

All this leaves the U.S. in an ambiguous position. American horses are potentially harming consumers in the EU – and Japan, Switzerland, and some horsemeat is even imported back to the U.S. But America has no jurisdiction over drug residue because we aren’t slaughtering the horses. And it seems unlikely slaughterhouses will reopen in the U.S. anytime soon.

But can’t the U.S. government do something — regulate someone — along the American leg of the slaughter pipeline? Sort of. The U.S. Department of Agriculture can and does enforce the humane treatment of horses destined for slaughter. By email, a USDA spokesperson acknowledged that shuttering American slaughterhouses increased “the risk for [horses] being treated inhumanely.”

But the same scathing GAO report which illuminated this “increased risk” for American horses also examined the USDA’s “transport program” for horses destined for slaughter, finding it woefully inadequate. Although the USDA has followed up on many of the GAO’s recommendations, one critical area remains a problem: funding. The GAO said the “transport program’s” 2010 budget of $204,000 was only enough to cover the salary and travel expenses of two staff members — two staff members charged with enforcing the humane transport of over 100,000 horses per year, crossing both our southern and northern borders.

I asked the USDA what the 2012 budget was. Answer: $107,591.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. The gear she designed — specifically to keep cattle calm during slaughter — is used in about half the slaughterhouses in North America. It’s fair to say she knows more about slaughtering livestock than most people in the world, although, when I spoke with her, she did not advocate reopening American slaughterhouses: “I don’t want to get into that can of worms.”

But Grandin worries if the EU cracks down, American horses will starve and be abused. Or, even worse, American horses could be shipped to municipal, non-EU-approved slaughterhouses in Mexico, which will virtually ensure they are not slaughtered humanely.

“That’s absolutely horrible because they stab them in the back of the neck,” says Grandin.

And, if American horses head to municipal plants in Mexico, then Mexicans would start consuming America’s tainted horsemeat.

“Obviously we can’t have horses full of drug residues,” says Grandin. “One of the things you can do is put them in a feedyard for six months and the drugs will come out.”

The EU is technically okay with that idea because some banned drugs do dissipate from a horse’s system in six months. Still, Silky Shark sat on one of those feedlots for over six months and it didn’t make a difference because Bute stays in a horse’s system permanently.

A shot over the bow?

Silky Shark. (Credit: Ken Terpenning)

In October, horse slaughter opponents rejoiced when it seemed the EU was halting all imports of American horsemeat. It turned out to be a temporary glitch, and after a long weekend, the slaughter pipeline chugged back into operation.

But mixed reports about what caused that glitch may indicate a regulatory crackdown in the not-too-distant future. Officially, the EC says a clerical error in France caused confusion, briefly shutting down imports from Canada. But horse advocates suspect the EC was taking “a shot over the bow” of American kill buyers, who were stopped dead in their tracks by the temporary halt. And Stephane Giguere, the general manager of Les Viandes de la Petite Nation, a slaughterhouse in Quebec, tells The New York Times “he turned away truckloads of horses coming from the United States because his clients were worried about potential drug issues.”

“It’s not a perfect system,” Giguere tells the Times. “But I’m confident our meat is safe because we work hard at keeping it so in a heavily regulated industry.”

By the way, Giguere works for the facility that slaughtered Silky Shark.

For Ken Terpenning, the fate of his beloved horse teaches at least one lesson: the U.S. should adopt a voluntary version of the EU’s horse passport system.

“I just wish it was done,” says Terpenning. “I look at his pictures on my wall every day and I just still can’t believe it.”