Roly Owers argues that humanely slaughtering horses at abattoirs and entering them into the food chain could help to mitigate one of the key welfare challenges facing UK horses – delayed euthanasia.
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Roly Owers is the chief executive of World Horse Welfare, an international charity that strives to support and improve the horse-human partnership.
We all know that end-of-life decision making is a fundamental part of responsible ownership of animals, but for equine owners in particular, euthanasia of their horse can be a very difficult and expensive choice.
In a 2016 study undertaken by researchers at the University of Bristol and funded by World Horse Welfare, it was found that delayed euthanasia was one of four key welfare challenges in the UK, with financial considerations cited by some as a reason for delay.1
But could this welfare challenge be mitigated to some extent if horses could be sent for humane slaughter at an abattoir and entered into the food chain?
Considered within the bounds of responsible ownership, abattoirs are useful outlets for horses who might otherwise suffer
Considered within the bounds of responsible ownership, abattoirs are useful outlets for horses who might otherwise suffer. And they could also alleviate the financial pressures for owners; in the UK, the cost of euthanasia and carcase disposal can be upwards of £500, whereas an abattoir could pay an owner around £400 for their horse – a considerable financial difference. There is also a danger that if slaughter is not available for those owners who cannot afford euthanasia and carcase disposal then illegal slaughter might fill this gap – unregulated and out of sight, this could have profound implications for horse welfare and food safety.
In the USA, for example, horse slaughter has effectively been banned and this has resulted in dire consequences for the welfare of unwanted horses. They are often transported long distances out of the country, are kept in poor conditions and can be slaughtered with little regard to their welfare. Whereas, a well-regulated slaughter industry, with competent practitioners and slaughter close to the source, could be a safe way to give these horses a humane end.
As for any food-production animal, slaughter of horses can never be ‘stress free’, but provided regulations (of an EU standard) exist and are enforced then this stress can be minimised. Such regulation must include conditions of transport, lairage and handling of horses, as well as stunning and slaughter. As sensitive flight animals, horses have specific needs at slaughter – loud noises, unusual smells and threatening behaviour can make them especially anxious and liable to panic. There are, however, excellent examples of slaughterhouse design and practices in some equine-specific abattoirs in Europe. For example, there are facilities that have gates, locks and doors that have been coated in a special metal to dampen loud noises, that have flooring made of rubber matting with grip rather than smooth concrete, and that employ staff who have an understanding of horses and can handle them effectively but sympathetically.
Currently, horses in the UK are not farmed for meat. Equine slaughter can help the welfare of horses from the sport, leisure and other markets, but it should never be viewed as a safety net for irresponsible ownership or overbreeding. People take care of what they value. A relatively stable price for meat in Europe gives horses a value, often a much higher one than those horses ineligible for the food chain. At a time in the UK when ponies can be bought for £5 or horses are ‘free to a good home’, these animals can often end up in the hands of the inexperienced and uncommitted, with inevitable consequences for their welfare. Those owners who know their horse has at least a meat value are more likely to protect that value by caring for the horse and ensuring it is fed, free of disease, and fit to be transported.
There might not be a market for horse meat in the UK (and it’s also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, most pet food companies in the USA and Europe do not use horse meat due to its expense and the negative public relations implications), but there is already a significant global demand for horse meat. In several European countries, horse meat is considered to be nutritious and beneficial to health; in Japan, it is considered a delicacy; while China has the world’s largest market for horse meat. So, horses slaughtered in the UK could be sold to these countries where a demand already exists.
We know that owners have a fundamental role in protecting the welfare of their horse from birth to death. But equally vets have a key role too, from talking to owners about the full implications of signing their animal out of the human food chain, to the pivotal role of official veterinarians in abattoirs.
Excluding a horse from the food chain is a choice any owner (in the EU) can make. And indeed it does enable a wider range of medicines to be used and eases the administrative burden for the treating veterinarian. But the simple solution is not always the right one, as once a horse is excluded from the food chain it has no minimum meat value and this decision is irreversible. This might suit the current owner but what about future ones?
As vets, we are ideally placed to provide owners with relevant advice to help them make informed decisions about end-of-life choices for their horses, and I believe this should also include the option of the abattoir.
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