Rural Notes 11

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The horse meat scandal rumbles on into a third month, with further revelations considered newsworthy on a weekly basis. The supermarkets have not been slow to react. Tesco took a series of whole page adverts in the national press, claiming to have listened to their customers and reacted accordingly. Time will tell, but it might appear premature to promise ‘more transparency with more detailed information about their suppliers and how they work, than any other retailer.’ How do they know what other retailers are planning?

Leopards and spots spring to mind, but I wonder whether they have rushed out a reassuring statement to their customers before fully considering where the flaws exist, and what actions really need to be taken to mend a broken system and safeguard the public. Perhaps they deem the packaging more important than the ingredients. I suspect other supermarkets have used similar strategies to retain customer loyalty, but it seems a pity that they haven’t been seen to offer some of their colossal power to help effect fundamental change in the current regulatory system which has clearly been found ineffective. That might show that they appreciate the gravity of the scandal and support preventing a recurrence.

At the moment, across Europe, there is a system of Horse Identification which is a shambles. Since 2004, all horses, ponies and donkeys have required a Horse Passport. According to the government department DEFRA, this is to ensure firstly that horses treated with certain medicines don’t end up as food for people, and secondly to prevent the sale of a stolen horse, pony or donkey, as the passport proves its identity. The recent press stories have related to the presence in beef products of not just horse meat, but horse meat contaminated with medicines which are classified as hazardous to human health. Most notably is the product Phenylbutazone, (‘bute). Essentially, ‘bute is an anti-inflammatory which was withdrawn from human usage years ago following evidence it could occasionally cause serious side effects. The drug was never withdrawn from vet usage and because it is relatively safe for horses, highly effective and affordable, it has been a mainstay giving quality of life to many older horses.

There are alternative medicines, but they are more expensive, and in many cases, owners of old retired horses would have no choice but to put them to sleep if they could not afford the alternative medications. Initially, the removal of the drug in human medicine combined with the European penchant for eating horse, and threatened a complete ban on its veterinary use. An anxious UK horse lobby successfully negotiated an opt-out from a proposed prescribing ban, but it relied on the Horse Passport system. Every Passport has a section which needs to be filled out every time medicines are administered or prescribed, by the vet, so that drug withdrawal times can be observed for any animals which might be slaughtered for human consumption. The list of medicines which can be prescribed was agreed between member states, and on every occasion they are administered or dispensed, the details must be recorded on the passport. ‘Bute is not on the list, but the negotiated opt-out allows this to be given where the owner has signed a declaration that the animal will not be submitted for human consumption. Indeed, with this section signed, the need to record details of any medication on the passport passes. (All treatments are of course still recorded by the vet on the case histories.)

The intent of the Passport was clear and understandable. The obvious comparison is with the DVLA who maintain a register of cars, ensuring that cars are ‘healthy’ (insured and MOT’d), and that theft is minimised by making documentation a legal requirement for car ownership. However, there the similarities end. For a start, there is only one DVLA, whereas the government unhelpfully authorised eighty four (84!) different horse organisations to issue the passports. These organisations ranged from large companies with hundreds of employees, to very small charities. Each organisation issued its own style of Passport, and had its own idiosyncrasies in terms of the details required. Some required a vet to implant a microchip, permanently giving the horse a unique identification, but others did not, merely asking the applicant to sketch their horse’s identifying marks and submit their application. This seemed to me akin to asking the owner of a new car to draw it, and send their sketch to the DVLA computer. Who on earth conceived this? Admittedly, since 2009, all horses have required being microchipped before a passport application is made, but there is no retrospective demand on older horses already passported to be identified by microchip. This means that many tens of thousands of horses have passports which identify the horse by way of a sketch the owner (current or previous) made many years ago, and which has never been checked by any third party. This is unusually trusting of the authorities and doesn’t seem very reliable.

The shortcomings in relation to preventing entry to the food chain of horses treated with certain medicines were stark from the outset. Firstly, the passport must permanently & effectively identify the horse, and this is simply not reliable where owners or keepers or vets have made sketches of identifying features themselves. Secondly, the passport must be available for scrutiny at the time any treatment is delivered. For a myriad of reasons this does not always happen. They are cumbersome documents, much bigger than our own UK passports, so nobody rides with one. A horse may live in a field far from its owner or be ridden by people other than the owner. Therefore the passport is likely to be in different hands any time the vet is called. Owners calling into the surgery to collect these medicines, may be far from home and have forgotten the passport, leaving their vet to either decline their client treatment for their patient, or dispense it with an owners promise to produce the passport in due course so the vet can verify the relevant section has been completed or signed. Thirdly, there really was nothing in place to stop an owner applying to another of the issuing authorities and obtaining another passport for the same horse under a different name; one to allow access to ‘bute, and one to allow access to the food chain. Illegal of course, but achievable for any determined person.

The compulsory microchipping is a big step forward but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The fact is that only a tiny minority of UK horse owners would ever contemplate their horses entering the human food chain. Unlike cattle, the value of horses to their owners is in their usage and company, not their meat, and the value of their carcase is such a tiny proportion of the costs the owners have incurred in the course of their ownership that it is usually considered negligible.

It would surely be much better for all horses to be microchipped, with their identification managed by one single competent body. The law now requires all foals to be microchipped, so why not all horses? Microchips are inexpensive and are a permanent and unique method of identification. If there were two microchip types, one for horses whom their owners declared would never enter the food chain (an ‘A’ chip), and one for those that might (a ‘B’ chip), I believe that there would be an immediate overwhelming majority opted for the former. It would mean these horses could be treated on demand, as appropriate, just by the vet carrying a scanner and verifying the microchip type. On the other hand, at the abbatoir, an inspector would need only to scan any horse to confirm the absence of an ‘A’ chip and the presence of a ‘B’ chip before accepting it.

I believe this would not significantly depress the value of these horses. Any reduction in the value, occasioned by their exclusion as a meat product, would only ever be borne once, by the person making the initial ‘A’ chip declaration, as the decision could never be reversed. Equally, if at any time an owner wished to reverse a previous decision and exclude a horse previously microchipped as qualifying for consumption with a ‘B’ chip, they need only implant an additional ‘A’ chip. At inspection, the ‘A’ chip would be identified by scan, and would take precedence rendering the animal disqualified. No decision to exclude with an ‘A’ could ever be reversed.

Vet practices are used to integrating remote database technology into their management systems. We have used DEFRA’s systems for cattle health records for years, and I believe it would be a very easy process to maintain a central database of all horses identified as potentially for human consumption, and have vets log in and record against each individual horse, the medical treatments administered, as currently required by law. This way however, would circumvent issues of illegible handwriting on mud covered rain soaked pages in passports which have probably not even left the kitchen drawer at home.

My understanding is that under current budget cuts, there won’t be any money from government made available in the near future to tighten these regulations and help prevent the real threat, which is less that of mislabelled meat, horrific though that is, but more of meat contaminated by hazardous pharmaceuticals. I think there is an opportunity here for the supermarkets to put their money where their mouth is and lead the way on this issue. This could be an opportunity to demonstrate they really have listened.

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group