Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

A welfare time bomb is building over surplus of unwanted horses

John Shirley

The horsemeat saga rumbles on. For most of us, the controversy is of superficial interest, even mildly amusing given the number of wise cracks it spawned.

Cattle prices have actually firmed as the removal of the filler material from the meat chain created a demand for more genuine beef.

But the DNA technology has lifted the lid on the long time nefarious practice in the meat business known as "mixing". This involves adding or mixing in a source of cheaper meat to dilute the overall cost of the item. To the untrained eye all red meat looks the same. Once the sauces or condiments are added, taste is masked as well.

Cow beef can masquerade as prime beef cuts. Lamb can be substituted by beef. This is the case the world over. In Australia, beef was diluted with kangaroo. In other parts of the world camel meat has been found where it shouldn't be.

In retrospect, given the nature of the meat industry and the availability of cheap horsemeat, the Irish authorities should have suspected the malpractice earlier.

In their recent report, the Department of Agriculture stated that the frozen meat found to contain equine DNA in Silvercrest, was labelled as Polish. There was no evidence of adulteration of these consignments with horsemeat in Ireland. The report also concluded that Silvercrest and Rangeland Meats did not knowingly include the horsemeat in their burgers.

The big Irish players caught up in the horsemeat saga, like ABP, may have lost burger business but their mainstream fresh beef business continues as normal. They are simply too big, and doing the job too well, for the supermarkets to look elsewhere for product.

The biggest casualty of the horsemeat saga is the domestic trade for unwanted horses. The Celtic Tiger collapse had led to a huge surge in horse disposals. Back in 2008 there were only about 2,000 horses slaughtered in Irish Department of Agriculture-approved abattoirs. By 2011, this had shot up to 12,386 and almost doubled again in 2012.

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But of the five outlets slaughtering horses, all but one in Newcastlewest, Co Limerick, have stopped operating. The industry is now in a mess. A backlog of unwanted horses is building up as the Department tries to implement a centralised data base and passport scheme for horses.

Nobody knows the total number of horses in the country but all signs point to a backlog build up and nowhere to go with them. Also, given that you could buy five store horses for the price of one beef store, it's no surprise that a number of beef fatteners had switched to fattening store horses.

What is going to happen to this surplus of unwanted horses? It costs a lot to keep a horse and some owners can genuinely not afford this expense.

Disposing them in a knackery will involve a fee or anything from €100 to €140 a head. Getting the horse put down and applying for an on-farm burial license will involve similar cost.

Will horses be simply let off to fend for themselves on the sides of roads or released onto open places like the Curragh or a mountain?

A potential welfare time bomb is building.

What are the options?

Will the EU organise a Destruct Scheme for horsemeat in the same way as it did for unwanted beef at the height of the BSE crisis in 2000?

Or can the Irish Department take a different line on banning from the food chain any horse that was ever treated with "bute" in its lifetime?

Instead of the blanket ban, bring in a pre-slaughter test to establish the absence of bute residue. Then the animal can safely enter the food chain.

Logic would suggest that this is the best solution to the horse surplus; given that there is a food market for horses.

Irish Independent