It has been announced that the European Commission is set to adopt stricter regulations on the import of horsemeat from non-EU countries following its latest audit, which found that Canadian horsemeat may not meet EU food safety standards. Consumer safety has been an ongoing concern in the EU, and new rules have been expected for some time.

The European Commission identified traceability issues with the horses during its audits of Canadian horse slaughter plants due to the fact that the majority of horses slaughtered in Canada originate from the U.S., where the use of veterinary drugs banned for use in food-producing animals is rife and there is no mandatory veterinary record-keeping.

The new EU rules mean that from March 31, 2017, horses destined for slaughter in non-EU countries but for export to the EU, must undergo a minimum six-month residency requirement. This decision is likely to impact the horse slaughter industry in Canada and several South American countries, where horses for slaughter may be sourced from neighbouring countries.

Humane Society International/Europe (HSI/Europe) says the new rules risk compromising horse welfare by potentially keeping large numbers of horses on feedlots for long periods of time. HSI wants to see a complete EU import ban on meat from these horses instead.

Dr. Joanna Swabe, HSI/Europe’s executive director, said “The current lack of traceability of horsemeat from outside the EU is a real concern, so we cautiously welcome the European Commission’s move to tackle this issue. However, it mustn’t be at the expense of horse welfare, which we fear will be seriously compromised if horses are held at feedlots for six months waiting to be butchered for the European market.

“The risks to EU consumer health from Canadian horsemeat imports do need to be taken seriously…However, whilst the intention of the six-month residency requirement is a step in the right direction, it overlooks the welfare of the horses whilst at the same time being insufficient to guarantee the safety of the meat. These veterinary drugs often have no maximum residue limit, so there are also no withdrawal periods associated with them. Instead of holding horses for long periods in what are likely to be sub-standard conditions, these animals should be excluded from the food chain entirely, and that means an EU import ban.”

Since July 31, 2010, the EU has required that the only horses allowed to be slaughtered for export within the EU are those with a known lifetime medical treatment history and medicinal treatment records that show they have not been treated with banned substances and satisfy the veterinary medicine withdrawal periods.

In 2014, a Food and Veterinary Office audit in Canada concluded that it cannot be guaranteed that horses slaughtered for meat export to the EU have not been treated with illegal substances within the last 180 days before slaughter.

That same year, the European Commission suspended the import of Mexican horsemeat imports owing to serious traceability and food safety concerns.