by Lindsay Watts
Humans have always eaten horses. Early cave paintings show them being hunted, and during the Napoleonic Wars, horses killed in battle were routinely eaten by the infantry on both sides. During the First World War a contract existed between the British Army and a Belgian company for the supply of all the horse carcases killed in battle, which the company then turned into food for human consumption. It is still consumed in quantity in Europe and apparently Japan.
By 1980 it was realised that there was danger to humans in eating horses which had suffered from African Horse Sickness, or which had taken certain drugs, particularly bute, which were harmful to humans. In 1990 a European Union directive was issued directing all EU countries to introduce a passport system within a short period of years. The United Kingdom negotiated a stay of this until 1995, largely on the ground that horsemeat was not consumed here. Regulations were passed in England that covered England and Wales, and Scotland was covered by the 2005 regulations mentioned above. They were amended slightly in 2007, but they are the regulations in force today. They can be found on the www.legislation.gov.uk website.
We all know the basics. Every horse should have a passport, and those born after 2009 should have a microchip as well. The passport should record the date of birth of the horse, and a description of it drawn up by a vet, and it should also record the current owner. On separate pages every vet who treats the animal should record the drugs administered to the horse. When a horse is sold, the passport should be handed to the new owner, who has 30 days to send it to the issuing authority and have it changed to record the new owner. The regulations are to be enforced by your local authority, not by the police. Those are the same local authorities who have had their funding cut year on year, and although they do their best, they have priorities higher than enforcing the horse passports regulations.
There are very few prosecutions. They usually occur as a side issue to a prosecution for ill treatment of a horse. Occasionally, as in Plymouth, they occur because a horse dealer has picked up an old or defective horse for little or nothing, and then sells it on but has wangled a new passport for it, to avoid disclosing the veterinary treatment the horse has received in the past. The regulations are simply not enforced well.
In a recent case in Perth about a 21 year old mare, a passport was submitted to the court to try to establish ownership of the animal. I phoned the company who had issued the passport, who explained that the passport had been issued to a breeder in Ireland in 1992 when the horse was one month old, and they had not had any information about change of owners or anything since. The passport had obviously been tampered with, because the person claiming ownership had their name handwritten on the passport, but no one (including the judge in the case) did anything about it, and this obviously defective passport is still in existence.
The recent scandal about horse meat in burgers and Spaghetti Bolognese demonstrates that the system is not working as it should. The people who are abiding by the regulations are the responsible horse owners, but there are so many loopholes that those exploiting horses can find ways round the regs very easily.
From our position as horse owners, there are positives about the regulations. They disclose something about the history of any horse being bought. The existence of a passport, with evidence of regular veterinary care does indicate that the seller has looked after the horse. The absence of a passport – or a passport with little history in it – is an indication that there are problems, which may be best avoided. But if a passport shows veterinary care that indicates a problem with the horse, a seller could easily burn the passport and obtain a duplicate, which shows clear records on the vet’s pages.
The intention behind the regulations was to safeguard human health. Unfortunately responsible horse owners are saddled with the bureaucracy and expense of abiding by the regulations. Sadly those who seek to exploit older horses or horses with problems can usually find ways round the regulations. Yet if they were being enforced properly they would benefit almost everyone involved, including the horses themselves. One improvement that would radically improve matters would be if every passport issuing authority called in every passport every two years to check it, and only returned it once they were sure everything checked out.
We would like to ask our readers to help make the regulations more effective. If you suspect anything wrongdoing about passports, please ask the person involved to fix it. If you think they will not do that, report it to your local trading standards officer, preferably by letter. Let us try to use the regulations to help protect our equine friends, even though they were not introduced for that purpose.
Note: Scottish law may differ from the rest of the UK