Horsemeat scandal has acted as an important wake-up call to us all
Kieran O’Brien’s horse vet diary
Have you eaten any caterpillars lately, or perhaps a few fried locusts? A recent survey found that some three thousand species of insects and their larvae are eaten by people worldwide – but not of course in the UK, where such exotic foods are culturally unacceptable. We don't eat horsemeat either, much to the disdain of our neighbours across the channel, where it is considered routine.
A colleague who works in France profonde told me that in her area (the far south) horsemeat is only eaten by the poor.
While on holiday in Iceland many years ago I bumped into a local vet who, with the easy fellowship of our profession, invited me both to lunch (we had a nice wild salmon as I recall) and to spend an afternoon with him on his rounds. One of his calls was to a farm to see a very lame Icelandic pony. It proved a truculent patient, so (as is the norm in those parts) hobbles and ropes were applied and, with the assistance of the farmers' two burly sons, the horse was cast, rolled on to its back and trussed up like a chicken. Following an inspection of the offending foot, the vet pronounced the pony incurable. 'Never mind' said the farmer nonchalantly, 'we'll put it in the freezer.'
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I have eaten horsemeat a few times in Europe and cannot remember what it tasted like, which suggests it was neither repellent nor delicious. Interestingly my horse-owning clients, when asked, have never expressed any revulsion at the thought of people eating horse, just that they wouldn't eat it themselves. The key issue in the current scandal is the finding that horsemeat adulteration of beef by criminals seems to have been happening on an industrial scale, although you will have noted that there are no reports of anybody becoming ill as a result.
Much has been made of the risk to human health if a burger was eaten which contained phenylbutazone ('bute'-contaminated horsemeat). It has been calculated that a person would have to eat 500-600, 100% horsemeat bute-contaminated burgers a day to get close to consuming a human's daily dose, so the risk is theoretical rather than practical. Nevertheless, the drug should not be present at all and it behoves all of us to ensure that it never is.
Bute is a relatively inexpensive, generally safe and very useful drug. It is used widely to treat arthritis in old horses and without it they would either be left to languish in pain or have to be destroyed. Although it was clinically effective (I can remember my father taking it for a bad back) it is not quite so safe for humans and was withdrawn from the human market. Because in Europe the horse is considered a food animal and because of concerns that bute-contaminated horses would enter the food chain, the drug was banned in the EU. However vets in Britain and Ireland were permitted to continue to prescribe it, provided the horse's passport was endorsed permanently to exclude the horse from slaughter for human consumption. The recent finding of traces of 'bute in eight out of 206 horse carcases in the UK suggests that, in these cases, either the passports of these horses were not endorsed, or they had duplicate or fraudulent passports, or the drug was given without specific veterinary authorisation (a common occurrence).
It is probably fair to say that members of my own profession have sometimes been a little lax in ensuring passports are endorsed – there tends to be other things on one's mind when treating a sick horse – but the recent scandal has acted as an important wake-up call to us all.
The dog's breakfast that is the passport system is deeply flawed and open to widespread abuse. Responsibility for this can be laid squarely at the feet of Defra, a branch of government that has ignored a lot of the advice of the equine industry on this subject, and had to be forced by the EU in 2009 to accept compulsory microchipping (which already had been introduced in all other EU countries years before) – a key requirement to prevent passport fraud. The fact that the introduction date was July 1 – i.e. at the end rather than the start of the foaling season – illustrates how remote Defra was from the reality on the ground. The ludicrous situation whereby there are some 80 different passport- issuing organisations (PIOs) and, with the demise of the National Equine Database (funding was withdrawn by Defra in October) and no central register, illustrates how far we have to go to reform the system. Enforcement has been so poor one PIO was able to issue 7,000 passports after it ceased to be an approved organisation due to the low standard of its record-keeping.
Defra is consulting on reforming horse passports and I am trying not to be too cynical about the outcome. Apart from the now-widespread testing of meat products for adulteration, perhaps we can hope that an additional benefit that will flow from the recent horsemeat scandal will be, at last, a robust, fraud-proof horse passport system.
Kieran O'Brien is a vet at EqWest Equine Veterinary Clinic, Tavistock. Telephone 01822 613838.