The issue of drug contamination of American horse meat has been highlighted in a white paper produced by the Humane Society of the United States.
The paper details what it says are food safety risks associated with consuming meat from American horses.
US horses are primarily used for companionship or competition and are therefore not treated in the same way as animals raised for human consumption.
Horses, the paper says, are commonly given pharmaceuticals banned for use in food-producing animals by the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office.
“The slaughter of American horses poses a potentially serious health risk to human consumers, yet tens of thousands are still slaughtered for their meat,” said the society’s director of public health and animal agriculture, Dr Michael Greger.
“New measures put in place in the European Union to address this risk are vital steps to ensure horses who are regularly given phenylbutazone and other European Union-banned substances are kept out of the slaughter pipeline.”
Each year, more than 100,000 US horses are transported for slaughter in Canada and Mexico. The meat is exported for consumption in the European Union (EU) and Japan.
Research shows that horses from the US comprise a large percentage of the total slaughterhouse output of Canada and Mexico.
A study of the medical records of racehorses sent to slaughter shows that some horses with a history of phenylbutazone use are making their way to slaughter plants despite the US and other countries’ ban of the use of the drug in food producing animals.
Phenylbutazone, commonly called “bute”, is an anti-inflammatory regularly given to horses, and it is known to be hazardous to humans, even in trace amounts.
In 2010, the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office evaluated food safety standards for imported horsemeat and found that many countries did not keep adequate veterinary pharmaceutical records, nor are there systems in place to differentiate those equines raised for human consumption from those that are not.
Therefore, effective from July 2013, the EU will require that all horses presented for slaughter at EU-certified plants in countries which export horsemeat to the EU, have a veterinary record listing all medications they have been given over their lifetime.
This new regulation would render nearly all American horses ineligible for foreign slaughter, the white paper suggested.
The humane society and Front Range Equine Rescue have filed legal petitions with both the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture to block companion, working and show horses from being slaughtered for human consumption.
The white paper noted that, since US horses are primarily used for companionship and competition rather than consumption, drugs may be administered without taking food safety implications into account.
This was especially pertinent in regards to the administration phenylbutazone. In 1949, phenylbutazone became available in the US for people suffering from both rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
However, within three years of its availability, PBZ was linked to serious adverse reactions, including aplastic anemia, bone marrow depression and renal failure.
After examining several case studies, it was banned for human use in the US. For animals, the only FDA-approved phenylbutazone use is as an oral or injectable dose in dogs and horses.
The white paper noted that, in 2010, the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) evaluated food safety standards of imported equine meat from non-members of the European Union.
It found that many such countries did not keep veterinary pharmaceutical treatment records for horses; and there was no systems in place to differentiate equines intended for human consumption from all other equines.
“The evaluations also reported that third countries tolerate the administration of substances that are prohibited or unauthorized in food-producing animals in the EU,” the white paper said.
Since 2000, the EU’s regulations state that horse meat cannot contain residues of veterinary medicinal products exceeding previously set limits or residue from substances banned for use in food producing animals in the EU.
These restrictions include phenylbutazone. If substances prohibited for use in food-producing animals are administered to equids, those animals must be excluded from the food chain.
Both Canada and Mexico have submitted action plans in order to comply with the EU’s import requirements for equine meat, and both plans have been approved by the FVO.
In Mexico, horses imported for slaughter are to be microchipped and border controls have been strengthened. A sworn statement on veterinary medical treatments is requested for all slaughter horses, regardless of their country of origin.
United States providers of imported horses (holding facilities) have been targeted in samplings of the Mexican National Residue Monitoring Programme (NRMP).
According to the NRMP, 19 samples of horsemeat in 2008, nine in 2009, and six in 2010, tested positive for residues of banned substances. All of the horses who tested positive were covered by a declaration stating that no treatments were given to the horses, and all of these horses came from US providers.
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has implemented the Equine Information Document (EID). The EID contains a physical description of the animal, record of the animal’s medical treatment for the previous six months, and requires the signature of the animal’s owner at the time of ownership transfer to verify that all information is accurate.
If the EID indicates a horse has been given a substance not permitted for use in equines slaughtered for food, such as phenylbutazone, the horse will not be eligible for slaughter.
However, the white paper said that the 2011 FVO audit noted “for those horses imported from the United States of America for direct slaughter, the equine identification documents received were not reliable …”
“As long as there is no identification system in place, US horses will not meet the European Commission’s new food safety
regulations, which will become effective in July 2013,” the white paper said.
“The European Commission mandated a transitional period of three years in which third countries have to provide guarantees regarding medical and drug history for horses during their last six months before slaughter.
“After the three-year transition period—which ends in 2013— guarantees must be provided for the lifetime of the horses.
“This required lifetime guarantee that a horse be cleared of all EU prohibited substances for use in food-producing animals could eliminate virtually all US horses from the food chain.
“The substances banned for use in food-producing animals routinely administered by US horse owners render most American horses ineligible for foreign slaughter.”
It concluded: “Requiring accurate medical records and identification documents, regardless of the horse’s intended use, would draw clear lines regarding each individual horse’s eligibility for human consumption. Until such a system is in place, meat from American horses may pose a public health threat.”
The full white paper can be read here.