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The Horsemeat scandal: why did it touch a nerve?

News Icon 22/01/2015

In last week’s post, I looked back to the amazing revelations two years ago this week that horse DNA had been found in beef products sold in UK supermarkets.

Some of the controversy that accompanied the horsemeat scandal was no doubt caused by the UK’s special affiliation with equines. The idea of slaughtering these animals for meat has long been disturbing to British sensibilities.

A Spring day in 1911 at the bustling Belgian port of Antwerp; an English nurse, in her early fifties, Ada Cole, stood silent by the dockside scarcely believing her eyes. A cargo ship had pulled alongside and began to unload a slow procession of tired, worn-out horses which then shuffled along on their final journey.

These were English horses, exported to Belgium and forced to walk four and a half miles from the docks to be pole-axed at the slaughterhouse. It was a distasteful sight and locals would draw their curtains in protest. It was telling that this was done out of the sight of the horse-loving British people.

“One of the most dreadful things about this traffic” wrote Cole, “is that thousands of horses go to doom and agony, trudging along willingly and trustfully and in mute silence.” Cole went on to found a horse charity, now known as World Horse Welfare, to fight the live export trade in horses for slaughter.

In 1937, Sir George Cockerill MP succeeded in halting horse exports for slaughter through the Exportation of Horse Act, which put a minimum value on horses sent abroad, rendering the live meat trade uneconomic. The legislation lives on today.

Horsegate helped shine a light on the plight of horses as the forgotten farm animal. Living in Hampshire, England, I spend a lot of time in the New Forest area of the county, a wonderful ancient tract of forest and heathland inhabited by New Forest ponies. One of my favourite places is Beaulieu Road, where I’ve spent many happy hours watching breeding birds like the stunningly beautiful Redstart with its shimmering tail and silver forehead.

I remember my first experience of searching for Woodlarks with their fluty jazz tune of a song across from the local hotel. Although transfixed by the wildlife, I couldn’t help noticing the maze of post and rail pens from worn wood standing like quiet skeletons; this is where the forest’s feral equine inhabitants are rounded up and sold.

It has been part of the New Forest’s calendar for 60 years and for much of that time, there have been suspicions that some of the ponies are ending up in the meat trade. In 1952, the UK House of Commons saw impassioned exchanges between the agriculture minister and MPs driven by “widespread public feeling” against this “repulsive trade” in ponies for human consumption.

When Horsegate broke 60 years later, the local media raised the issue again; of low-price New Forest ponies possibly ending up in burgers. New Forest Verderer, Coline Draper, told the local Southern Daily Echo newspaper that unwanted animals were being snapped up by English abattoirs for as little as £10 and the meat sold to the French. He was reported as saying, “it may well be people are eating New Forest ponies”.

The truth is that Britain slaughters over 8,000 horses a year for meat. Some of these are likely to be privately-owned riding horses whose owners find themselves with an old horse or one that they cannot keep. For some owners, sending Neddy for slaughter is seen as the economic option over paying for a vet to put the horse down.

Some come from the racing industry; breeding winners is partly a game of chance, so the more foals produced, the greater the chances. Failed or injured runners lead to a big turnover of animals, more than can be soaked up by private owners looking for a cherished animal to ride. The British Horseracing Authority estimates that about a thousand Thoroughbreds were killed in slaughterhouses in 2012.

An undercover investigation by UK’s The Guardian newspaper revealed how two British slaughterhouses would happily accept racehorses for slaughter, with one boasting to have killed big name horses from the racing industry. They confirmed the meat would be sold to France.

Like many in Britain, I cannot stand the thought of horses being sent to abattoirs and killed. It just doesn’t seem right. It seems a double injustice when the animals have to endure hideously long journeys to meet their fate.

I hope that Horsegate has a lasting effect in highlighting the plight of horses so it can be dealt with. But the bottom line about Horsegate is that it wasn’t about food safety or animal welfare, but about how we often just don’t know what we’re eating.

Compassion is running Labelling Matters, a strong campaign on the related issue of full and honest food labelling. You can join us in calling for compulsory method of production labelling on all animal-related food products and building a better food system.


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