10/13/2012 8:12AM

Canada stops accepting U.S. horses for slaughter

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The United States market for slaughter horses was thrown into confusion Friday after slaughterhouses in Canada appeared to have closed their doors abruptly to U.S. horses, according to slaughter buyers, lower-market horse dealers, and the auctions they frequent.

U.S. horse auction officials said that the situation remained unclear, but it appeared the sudden closure might also apply to Mexico and could be related to European Union concerns over U.S. slaughter horses’ medication histories and veterinary documentation. As of late Friday night, slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico had not issued statements regarding their policies on U.S. equine imports, leaving auctioneers and slaughter buyers across the U.S. in limbo as auction houses canceled or postponed sales.

“We canceled upon hearing from some of our buyers that they would not be on the market because they would not be accepting horses into Canada,” said one Western auctioneer who did not want to be identified because he was concerned there could be public backlash against the auction house with which he is affiliated. “Nobody really knows right now if it’s coming from the Canadian government, the EU, or the packing plants.”

“They don’t want our horses, because they can’t ship the meat overseas,” another auction operator said.

Word of the Oct. 12 closures came one day after the European Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate-General issued its report covering an 11-day audit of Mexican equine slaughter facilities. Although the report found many practices satisfactory at facilities audited by the commission’s Food and Veterinary Office, it called verification of slaughter-bound horses’ veterinary records “insufficient.”

Effective July 31, 2013, the European Union – a major market for meat from U.S. horses slaughtered in Canada and Mexico – will require lifetime medication records for slaughter-bound horses. Both Canada and Mexico have attempted in recent years to tighten their requirements for veterinary records, responding to EU concerns over medications, such as Bute, that it bans from the food chain. But equine welfare advocates have long contended that the affidavits or Equine Identification Documents that are supposed to accompany slaughter-bound U.S. horses, and which detail their veterinary histories, are easily and frequently forged or fabricated as horses pass through the pipeline to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses. The recent FVO audit of Mexican slaughterhouses, which said 80 percent of horses killed in Mexico’s slaughterhouses originated in the U.S., did not use such stark terms but raised serious questions about the affidavits.

“[T]he systems in place for identification, the food chain information and in particular the affidavits concerning the non-treatment for six months with certain medical substances, both for the horses imported from the U.S. as well as for the Mexican horses are insufficient to guarantee that standards equivalent to those provided for by EU legislation are applied,” the Oct. 11 European Commission report said. The report also noted that Mexican officials “are not allowed to question the authenticity or reliability of the sworn statements [affidavits] made by owners of imported horse from the U.S. on veterinary medical treatments,” and that “there is no system in place to verify the declarations” on those horses’ documentation.

The situation could be complicated politically by the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said it will audit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency later this month. That word came after a late September E. coli outbreak prompted a Canadian meat packer to recall beef in more than 30  U.S. states, though the Canadian agency has said the audit was planned well before that outbreak and not in response to it. The Canadian agency has suspended the beef packer’s export permit.

Earlier this year, the Quebec slaughterhouse operated by Viande Richelieu returned two former racehorses, Canuki and Cactus Cafe, to Mark Wedig, partly because anti-slaughter advocates were able to show that the horses had been given medications and partly because of publicity surrounding the horses’ sale to the slaughter plant, the anti-slaughter advocates have said.

Leroy Baker, who operates Sugarcreek Livestock Auction in Sugarcreek, Ohio, said Friday night that the tighter EU regulations on horse meat already had contributed to a sharp decline in low-end horse prices, even before word filtered out among slaughter buyers that U.S. horses would not be welcome across U.S. borders.

“I told people the last couple of months who complained about the price, I said, ‘It’s coming, by the first of the year I think the borders will be closed down, so instead of worrying about the price, you better start worrying about getting rid of them,’” said Baker. “It’s probably down, oh, 35 percent. And if it’s shut down, there won’t be any market for 85 percent, maybe even 90 percent, of horses. If they don’t get it worked out and get those places opened back up, there will be absolutely no market.

“Starting the last six months, any horse would bring $150 to $550,” he added. “Now, it’s down from nothing to $400. Today, with the market shut down, it’s from nothing to $100. And that’s just little traders who didn’t realize what happened and they think they’re going somewhere else tomorrow or the next week and sell the same horse over and someone will buy it. But news travels fast. By tomorrow at noon, everybody in the country will know that they’re shut down.”

“It’s going to kill the horse industry in the U.S.A.,” said horse dealer Brian Moore.

Baker said he first heard about the slaughterhouses’ closure to U.S. horses at 6 a.m. Friday morning and said the news took him by surprise. He said he called some horse sellers he knew and told them not to bother bringing their horses to Sugarcreek.

In Davenport, Wash., the Stockland Livestock Auction canceled its Oct. 13 horse sale, saying on its website that “Stockland has just become aware of a possible situation regarding horse exports [as of 10/12/12]. We have reached out to numerous experts and traders in the business and as a result and due to the uncertainty surrounding the information we have so far we have decided to cancel the horse sale. We hope to reschedule later this fall or early in 2013.”

But early Saturday morning it still wasn’t clear how long the market might be tied up, the Western auctioneer said.

“Even if it’s just a 72-hour thing, it still crushes our market,” the auctioneer said. “I’ve heard anywhere from 72 hours to six months or better. It depends on where it’s coming from. If the Canadians are putting a stop to it because of inaccurate EID forms and they want the USDA to get tougher on those, then it could be a short deal. But if this is coming from the EU or it has to do with the European economy, then it could be a lot longer. If the U.S. is not going to guarantee that these horses haven’t had these medications that are banned for food in the EU, and if they can’t find a way to make those records more accurate, then it’s going to be a long deal.”

Meanwhile, many anti-slaughter groups cautiously hailed the apparent shutdown as they, like participants in the slaughter market, scrambled to find clarification on whether policies have, in fact, changed permanently in Canada, Mexico, or the EU.

“The most likely explanation for the sudden move is that the expanded residue testing program has yielded worse than anticipated results,” theorized the Equine Welfare Alliance’s John Holland.

But Sugarcreek’s Leroy Baker countered that a slaughter shutdown would still be bad news for U.S. horses.

“These animal rights people want to save them, but all they do is prolong the agony,” Baker said. “They think they’re saving them. They think they saw starving, thin horses that weren’t [taken] care of before when people could sell them and get something? Just imagine: they will turn them out on the roads and in empty fields and everything now.”