Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Horsemeat fiasco highlights need for better regulation

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Department of Agriculture officials are working on a new traceability system for horses that will record the movement of animals registered with passports since January 1, 1980, to the present day.

A central database will record the 'exit status' of those horses from the national herd, whether that is through death, slaughter or export.

Slaughter plants and knackeries will be required to submit the identification details of the equine animals slaughtered or disposed of, as well as the people who present the horses for slaughter, so that the animals can be recorded as dead on the system.

However, the database will fall short of the comprehensive bovine system that is already in place in Ireland and recognised as one of the world's best traceability systems.

"The legislative basis for the identification of equines resides in EU legislation, as transposed into Irish legislation, and it is not possible unilaterally to apply the EU provisions relating to the identification of bovines to the equidae sector," said a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture.

"Apart from this, not all components of the cattle system would be appropriate for equines, not least the requirement to use tags in both ears."

ISPCA chairperson Barbara Bent insisted that unless the system forced people to register transfer of ownership of horses and enforced the rules on equine premises registration, the Department "might as well not bother" with any traceability system.

"No regulation is worth a curse unless it is enforced," maintained Ms Bent. "We need horse ownership changes to be as strict as car ownership in this country.

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"For any horse we pick up that has a microchip, we contact the person that the chip registered to, but we are always told that they sold the horse months or years before.

"Unless the transfer of ownership is recorded and enforced, we will never be able to trace the real owners of the horses we pick up."

Enforcement of ownership transfer rules would also help charities like the ISPCA and Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) prosecute the owners who abandon and mistreat horses.

Department of Agriculture rules state that passports must accompany equines when they are moved within Ireland or out of the country and a Department spokesman claimed checks are carried out by Department staff, authorised officers including the Gardaí and general managers at sales, slaughter houses, fairs and knackeries to ensure horses had valid passports.

In reality, however, few horse owners are ever asked to produce passports at fairs, shows or at knackery plants.

A new statutory instrument, introduced by the Department of Agriculture in early 2012, required all horse owners and keepers to register all premises with the Department before May 1.


At the time, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said the registration of premises was an important and legal requirement to enable the Department to identify the location of such premises so that they can be mapped on the Animal Health Computer System, in common with those other holdings already mapped (cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry).

This information would enable the Department to alert owners in the event of a contagious disease outbreak to quickly implement disease control measures and give them advice on appropriate precautionary, containment and control measures.

So far, only 5,707 premises have been registered, leaving thousands more premises unregistered and under the official radar.

The horsemeat scandal has focused attention mainly on the the meat trade but it is apparent that there is far too little information available about the equine industry in Ireland.

Even the simplest question – how many horses are in Ireland? – does not have an absolute answer.

The most recent estimate is provided by a report commissioned by Horse Sport Ireland and conducted by UCD on the economic contribution of the sport-horse industry to the Irish economy.

This report estimated the total horse population in Ireland at approximately 180,000hd.

However, Dr Des Leadon of the Irish Equine Centre warned that, despite the legal requirement for all horses in Ireland to be identified, there was poor compliance with this legislation, other than in the elite sectors. He also added that internationally, government figures were often underestimates of the real horse population.

There is an entire segment of the horse population industry that is both unregistered and uncontrolled.

Nine passport-issuing authorities are currently approved by the Department of Agriculture. These are Weatherby's Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland, Irish Pony Society, Connemara Pony Breeders' Society, Irish Piebald & Skewbald Association; Kerry Bog Pony Co-op Society, Irish Appaloosa Association, Warmblood Studbook of Ireland and the Horse Passport Agency Ltd.

Another agency, the Irish Cob Society, was removed from the Department's list of approved agencies late in 2012 but the Department refused to comment on the circumstances surrounding this.

Co-ordination of the information from all these agencies, as well as knackery plants, factories and ports is absolutely imperative. All horse owners need to shoulder responsibility by registering all horses and ponies. But, more importantly, there needs to be consequences for those who don't abide by the rules. The horsemeat debacle has been a nightmare for Ireland Inc but if there is a silver lining to be seen, hopefully it will be that the Government gets to grips with the unregulated sector of the horse industry.

Until now, the Government approach to unregulated horse ownership has been to largely ignore it but, in equestrian parlance, it's time to use less carrot and more stick.

Irish Independent

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