The aftermath of last year’s horse-meat scandal provides the opportunity for European and British authorities to get horse identification systems right, World Horse Welfare says.
The charity has provided a perspective on developments since the horse-meat scandal erupted across Europe a year ago. Checks across the continent found that beef adulterated with horse meat had been used in a number of ready-to-eat beef products.
The discovery resulted in huge recalls and threw a spotlight on the complexities of the food chain, and its vulnerability to the actions of rogue traders.
World Horse Welfare said while the public were left feeling deceived by the headline-grabbing affair, there was a silver lining.
It said it provided it with a chance to shine a spotlight on what was going on in the tangled and often sticky web of the horse meat trade, highlight how the laws in place meant to protect horses and the food chain do not do the job, and bring focus to the importance of improving accountability and traceability – all key factors that contributed to the landslide that was the horse meat scandal.
The charity said it had long been aware of problems with the horse passport system in Britain, and had been raising these concerns with the government for some years before the horse meat scandal.
The scandal prompted the European Commission and Britain’s agriculture agency, Defra, to launch a review of equine identification.
“Tightening up the laws on equine identification – or ‘horse passports’ – and planning to reintroduce a central database are vital steps forward, but there is a risk that the new laws will not go far enough to ensure a workable, enforceable system,” cautioned the charity’s chief executive, Roly Owers.
“We are urging the European Commission and Defra to take the opportunity afforded by the horse meat scandal to do it right this time around.”
The law requires that only horses born after 2009 have microchips linked to their passport, meaning that the hundreds of thousands of horses born before 2009, which could potentially live on for decades, will potentially remain untraceable.
The system will remain open to abuse and difficult to enforce despite other measures to tighten the system.
World Horse Welfare believes microchipping of all horses regardless of age is essential, but acknowledges that Defra and the European Commission may be reluctant to require this.
While Defra is rolling out more robust standards for equine identification next month, changes to the overarching EU Regulation are still being negotiated and are unlikely to be agreed until the end of the year, meaning no Europe-wide changes will take place until at least 2015.
“The momentum for change must be maintained,” Owers said.
“The effectiveness of the system will depend entirely on how well the new system and database are implemented, understood, complied with and enforced.”
The charity also urged the introduction of mandatory country-of-origin labelling for horse meat.
Consumers across Europe are denied this basic information that is needed to make informed decisions about what they are eating, it said.
Currently, horse meat may be legally labelled as the product of the country in which the animal was slaughtered.
This meant that meat from a horse transported for thousands of miles, spending only the final few hours of its life in the country where it is slaughtered, may appear to a consumer to be a local product.
Owers said there is now greater awareness of the welfare problems caused by the long-haul horse slaughter trade, but action was still needed at a political level to bring about change.