While there was widespread public concern over the food adulteration scandal earlier this year, in which foods labelled as containing beef were actually found to contain horse DNA, horsemeat continues to be eaten in the UK and throughout Europe. As data collected by Eurostat and presented here show, large amounts of meat from equids were traded throughout Europe in 2012.
In the UK, equids can be bought for slaughter at auctions, and there has been some public concern that pet or companion animals, as well as retired racehorses, are being acquired by abattoirs through this route.
In order to investigate whether or not this was the case, researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, visited auction markets across England and Wales to study the types of equids being put up for auction, as well as the kinds of animals preferred by dealers buying on behalf of abattoirs.
Seven auctions, located in Yorkshire, Wales, Berkshire and Cheshire, were visited by the research team. In total, they examined 384 equids at the auctions, checking for, among other things, the height, age and body condition of the animals. Several of the animals were found to have physical abnormalities, including bruises, burns, swellings or abnormal discharge.
The horses and ponies in the study were aged between less than one and 21 years old, although the majority (66 per cent) were younger than five years. The average height was 14 hands and a large proportion were geldings (42 per cent) followed by mares (30 per cent).
Of the 384 animals examined, 294 were successfully sold at auction and 68 of these were purchased on behalf of abattoirs.
Animals bought for the meat trade were more likely to be over 15.3 hands high, indicating a preference among abattoir buyers for larger animals. Inkeeping with this trend, abattoir buyers were less likely to buy ponies and more likely to select thoroughbreds and riding horses. Animals with physical abnormalities were more likely to be bought by the meat trade than by other buyers. Eleven of the animals bought by abattoir buyers were lame.
The authors conclude that people procuring equids for the meat trade prefer larger animals, probably reflecting a preference for animals that provide a high meat yield to cover the costs of transport and slaughter. As such, only a small proportion of small horses and ponies were destined for the meat trade and so this study did not support the view that the abattoir industry focuses on pet ponies when choosing animals for slaughter in the UK.
Troy Gibson, one of the authors of the paper, states:
“Horsemeat is widely consumed in continental Europe, especially Italy and France. The vast majority of horsemeat slaughtered in the UK is exported within Europe. This exporting of meat instead of live animals has been suggested to have reduced transportation times and animal suffering. The slaughter of horses, fraudulent labelling and horsemeat entering the human food chain all continue to be very contentious issues in the UK and Europe. This, combined with the ongoing debate in the USA on the slaughter of equids and meat inspection, has resulted in heightened public concern over the slaughter of horses. It has been previously suggested that the abattoir industry was profiting from the slaughter of pet ponies and surplus animals from the racing industry. To investigate this, Yvette Bell, as part of her research project for her Bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, visited equid markets and investigated factors associated with buying preferences for animals destined for abattoirs. The study gives an interesting insight into the selection of equids for the meat trade, suggesting that the industry focuses on larger animals.”