In Ireland, the debate over horse welfare tends to focus on cruelty in the racing industry and the abuse of companion animals while the horsemeat trade is largely forgotten. It is important to point out that although horsemeat is not commonly eaten in Ireland, horses are slaughtered here and exported to other countries at high rates. From 2019-2021, 617 tonnes of equine meat were exported from Ireland to other EU countries and 137.6 tonnes were exported from Ireland to non-EU countries during that same time.
The horsemeat industry has been dogged by scandals. Investigations have revealed a lack of adherence to minimum welfare standards, and there have been complaints concerning traceability. For the welfare of humans and horses alike, it is time to rein in the horsemeat industry.
EU horsemeat industry: no stranger to scandal
Ireland became the epicentre of a horsemeat scandal in 2013 when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland tested a number of frozen beef burgers and ready meals from supermarket chains. The testing revealed that a majority of the products which claimed to be 100% beef actually contained pig and horse DNA with some products containing as much as 29% horsemeat.
Consumers in Ireland and the UK were horrified when the test results were published and the ensuing scandal led to millions of meals and products being removed from supermarket shelves. Six years later, four men were found guilty of selling over 500 tonnes of horsemeat between 2012-2013 to French manufacturer Comigel and suspicions that organised crime was involved in the scandal were confirmed.
However, very little has actually changed in the decade following the 2013 scandal. In 2020, live horses along with over 17 tonnes of horsemeat were seized from slaughterhouses around the EU, including in Ireland. The inspectors involved found that “20% of the foreign passports used for the horses showed signs of forgery” and arrested several individuals who had connections to organised crime.
According to a recent report by Eurogroup for Animals, the horsemeat industry has a longer and more complex supply chain than other categories of animal meat, partly due to the fact that the EU imports a significant amount of its horsemeat from non-EU countries which do not adhere to minimum welfare standards.
Suffering of Horses
Horses are not bred to be eaten; rather horses who were kept as pets, or to race, work, or perform often end up in pre-slaughter feedlots and auction pens after they have “aged out” or been stolen from their owners.
Horsemeat production has a very high pre-slaughter mortality rate due to the cruelty and neglect of horses in feedlots. For over a decade, the Animal Welfare Foundation has investigated and reported on the horsemeat industry around the world. Their investigations focused on the countries which produce the most horsemeat in the world – and which are top exporters to the EU – such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Uruguay.
AWF reports show that horses in pre-slaughter feedlots suffer from exposure, starvation, stress, injuries, overcrowding, illness, and forced proximity of sick, lame, pregnant and young horses with adult horses. The AWF investigations have also found that staff at pre-slaughter feedlots and slaughterhouses will physically abuse the horses, chase them with dogs, electrocute, torture, and improperly slaughter the horses.
While the EU’s welfare standards are important for reducing the suffering of animals in agriculture, horses in the horsemeat industry suffer and are slaughtered regardless of whether the feedlots and slaughterhouses they pass through follow EU welfare guidelines or not. The only way to meaningfully eliminate the suffering of horses in the horsemeat industry is to eliminate the horsemeat industry altogether.
Stepping out of the abattoir
Public discourse around horsemeat often takes a tone not dissimilar to the outcry surrounding the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, particularly in countries such as Ireland where horses are not typically (intentionally) eaten. And, as with the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, many consumers are unable or unwilling to connect the suffering of dogs and horses with that of the pigs, cows, and chickens they continue to eat.
In Barbet Schoeder’s 1976 film Maîtresse, Gerard Depardieu drunkenly visits a Parisian abattoir in the early hours of the morning. He watches as a horse is hoisted into the air by hooks until it is hanging upside down. The horse’s throat is slit and, as blood erupts from its neck, the horse begins to gallop while suspended upside down. Depardieu watches the blood, and life, drain from the horse and then he proceeds to order two horse steaks for his breakfast.
As individuals and consumers we are daily faced with choices that mirror Depardieu’s. We are given the choice to either passively acquiesce to societal expectations and our own impulses by consuming animal products or to step out of the abattoir and into the Parisian sunshine. Every person who chooses to step out of the abattoir is, in a small but meaningful way, choosing to create a world with a little less animal suffering.