Suffering and disease lurk behind European horsemeat trade


Horsemeat discovered in beef products is the product of suffering and the spread of disease, according to World Horse Welfare.

Polish slaughterhorse covered in faeces

  • Disease spread major concern – 93% of just one shipment showed clinical signs
  • Horses fattened to obesity and pushed to limits during transport
  • Painful journeys to slaughter can last for days on end causing injury, dehydration and exhaustion

The charity is concerned about the casual attitude by some commentators towards eating horse meat while the abuse of horses that is rife in the trade goes largely unreported.

“Where there is horse meat, you can bet there is horse suffering and not just at the time of slaughter. This is no laughing matter. The whole European trade is mired in inadequate laws, needless suffering and the elephant in the room is the spread of infectious equine disease,” says World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers.

The charity does not oppose humane slaughter or the eating of humanely produced horse meat, which is a personal choice, but it is campaigning to stop the needless long distance transportation of 65,000 horses per year across Europe to slaughter. As part of their evidence-backed campaign the charity undertakes regular field investigations documenting the abuses of the horse slaughter trade.

Most live horses destined for slaughter are currently sourced from eastern Europe and more recently Spain, and the leading importer of live horses for slaughter is Italy, with France and Belgium importing smaller numbers.

“In the recent horse burger scandal for instance, we know from experience that meat originating in Poland could have been from horses bred for slaughter and fattened to the point of obesity,” says Owers.

“Or the meat could have come from working horses, young horses or unwanted horses outside of the country, who in all likelihood could have been travelled for days on end over thousands of miles with little food, water or rest, enduring terrible conditions, pain, injury, dehydration and disease.”

The spread of infectious equine disease is a primary concern. Scientific evidence shows that horses’ immune systems become compromised on long journeys and World Horse Welfare regularly sees a great number of slaughter horses showing clinical signs of disease, particularly discharge from the eyes and nose.

For instance. World Horse Welfare field investigations undertaken in September 2010 and February 2011 examined horses intended for slaughter and found that 93% of the horses in one shipment of horses showed clinical signs of disease.

“While there is not yet a proven link between the continental horse slaughter trade and Britain’s first cases of Equine Infectious Anaemia for30 years in 2010 and again in 2012, there is no doubt that the spread of disease in Europe is a real issue for horse welfare and an issue for Britain,” says Owers.

Equine Infectious Anaemia is prevalent in Europe, and endemic in parts of Eastern Europe, and is a notifiable disease that requires the destruction of horses carrying it. There are also far more destructive diseases like African Horse Sickness which spread in the same way and could get a foothold in Europe, and so threaten Britain’s £7 billion equine industry.

World Horse Welfare field investigations in 2010-2011 also found that:

  • 85% of horses had at least one acute injury. Many of these were the result of inadequate space on the vehicles which caused friction injuries on sides and tails.
  • Behavioural data from one randomly selected shipment observed in 2010 showed that 94% of horses had an abnormal stance and 83% were weight-shifting, both of which are indicative of pain or discomfort.
  • In one report 14% of Equidae were deemed unfit to be transported at the commencement of their journey from Romania to Italy; this figure was more than doubled at the time of arrival at their destination to 37%. World Horse Welfare consistently records Equidae that are unfit for transportation during field investigations.
  • World Horse Welfare has demonstrated that Equidae currently have limited, if any, access to water prior to, during, or after these journeys. Under these conditions Equidae would become severely dehydrated within 10 hours.

The suffering of these horses would have been exacerbated if they were obese. “Long journeys are difficult to endure for even the most fit and athletic horses, but for obese and unfit animals, the vast majority of which will have never been transported for any significant distance before in their lives, this travel is an absolute nightmare,” said Owers.

Inadequate space in the compartments of slaughter lorries also causes grave injuries to horses transported in them. “We see appalling rubbing and cutting injuries arise from this trade because horses can be crammed into inadequate space in poorly-designed vehicles.”

World Horse Welfare is calling for a short, maximum journey limit of 9-12 hours to prevent these horses from having to travel for days on end to the slaughterhouse. This limit is based on scientific evidence that shows horses suffer on longer journeys, and is also recommended by the European Commission’s own scientific advisors, the European Food Safety Authority. The charity is also calling for increased space allowance for horses and better vehicle design and welfare standards.

“Make no mistake – the long-distance transportation of horses for slaughter is the biggest abuse of horses in Europe, spreads disease and it needs to be stopped,” says Owers. “The European Commission must introduce better transport laws that protect horses, consumers and the equine industries of Europe.”

Please help us to campaign for an end to these journeys. Find out more here.