Food Contamination - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  Horse passport systems

34. In our last Report we commented on the operation of the horse passport system which failed to prevent unregulated breeding and trading of horses and horsemeat. We asked the Government to set out how it would reform the system so that horses were not being given illegal passports and horses which had been treated with phenylbutazone (bute) and other harmful drugs were kept out of the food chain.[51]

35. At present, all horses should have a passport which records all medication, although they are tested for drugs only when they enter the slaughterhouse.[52] We have been told that there are 75 organisations in the UK able to award horse passports and that horses are being issued with false passports by some of them, which do not always declare the presence of drugs.[53] The problem is not unique to the UK, Professor Reilly, Chief Executive of the FSAI told us that in Ireland, where the horsemeat contamination was first identified, "we have many different private organisations that issue horse passports, and the opportunity is there to tamper with passports, and that has been part of our problem."[54]

36. We were told that there were no checks on the movement of horses between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.[55] The FSAI has advised that there is currently no legal requirement to carry out such checks and that there has been an increase in the number of horses slaughtered in Ireland. However, neither ABP Foods nor the NFU had any evidence to suggest that the origin of the horsemeat was in Ireland.[56] FSAI concurred saying:

    If you look at the amount of horsemeat that is in circulation in the UK, there is close to something like 400,000 horses slaughtered in the EU annually. We have probably something like 30,000 tonnes imported into the EU. There is plenty of horsemeat in circulation in the EU. The quantity of horses that would be produced by Ireland is a drop in the ocean in comparison.[57]

FSA also reported that horses slaughtered for food in the UK were mainly exported as there was only a small market for horsemeat in the UK. That which was not exported was probably used in pet food.[58]

Tests for bute

37. In response to the contamination of beef products the Government, through the FSA, instituted a "positive release system" at horse slaughterhouses in the UK in February.[59] This meant that every horse carcass would be sampled for the presence of bute and released only if no bute was found. The FSA reported that between 11 February and 3 May, 20 out of 1,145 carcasses tested positive for bute.[60] The Government told us the UK was the only country in the EU to have instituted such a system.[61] At present the Government is paying for this system, but is considering whether industry should contribute.[62]

38. The EC-mandated tests on horsemeat reveal that 14 out of 836 UK samples of horsemeat tested positive for phenylbutazone. This was the largest number of positive tests within the EU.[63] We asked the Government to explain this result. Mr Heath said:

    it is very difficult to give you a definitive answer and I am not going to try. It may be associated with the level of testing that we have engaged in.[...] I think it would be expected that we would identify far more cases than those who are not doing testing.[64] [...] Any positive test means that somebody, somewhere has not been sufficiently assiduous in maintaining a passport in the form in which it should be.[65]

Mr Rhodes, from the FSA added;

    What we have seen so far, in terms of all the traceability exercises that we have conducted with others across Europe, is that origin of the meat appears to be legitimately slaughtered horses in approved premises in Eastern Europe, which has then made its way across Europe and at some point has been used fraudulently.[66]

Towards a new passport system

39. In relation to horse passports the Government's response to our Report indicated that it was working to improve the horse passport system within the framework of EU legislation. This might include "supporting the equine sector in developing a new central equine database which would be managed and funded by the sector."[67] One industry representative organisation, Zootrack Systems, has suggested this should be a live electronic e-passport system which would be less open to fraud and quick and inexpensive to implement. [68]

40. On 22 March, as part of a five-point action plan, the European Commission proposed to amend Commission Regulation 504/2008 in order "to make mandatory the recording of horse passports in a central national database" and "to transfer the issuing of horse passports entirely to the competent authorities and thereby reduce the number of passport issuing bodies.[69] The Minister told us the UK was subject to the EU timetable and that he would "certainly like to see a common database system for Ireland and for the United Kingdom, but across Europe as well."[70] Mr Heath said he was pressing for an early resolution on this, as well as on the tripartite system between the UK, Ireland and France dealing with thoroughbred animals.[71]

41. We are surprised at the number of positive test results for the presence of phenylbutazone in horsemeat originating in the UK in the EU-mandated tests. We welcome the Commission's proposal to make mandatory the recording of horse passports in a central national database and to reduce the number of passport-issuing organisations. The evidence we received suggests there are many loopholes in the present system which have allowed horses treated with bute to enter the food system. The positive release system for horses presented for slaughter is welcome and should continue with the cost shared between the Government and industry. Given the uncertainty over the origin of horsemeat in beef products, we would like some assurance that the movement of horses within the UK and between the UK and Republic of Ireland is being properly tracked by relevant authorities.

51   Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, paras 13-15.  Back

52   Ev 102, Commission Regulation (EC) No 504/2008 of 6 June 2008 requires the checking of passports for identification purposes and for the presence of drugs banned from the food chain.  Back

53   Qqs 495, 596; Ev W6-7  Back

54   Q 215 Back

55   Q 218 Back

56   Qqs 129, 166 Back

57   Q 209 Back

58   Q 648 Back

59   Contamination of Beef Products: Government Response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 Back

60   Ev 87 Back

61   Q 640 Back

62   Q 640  Back

63   14 out of 16 positive tests were from UK horsemeat.  Back

64   Q 634 Back

65   Q 639 Back

66   Q 651 Back

67   Contamination of Beef Products: Government Response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, p 4  Back

68   Ev W7-8  Back

69   Ev 109 Back

70   Q 637 Back

71   Q 638 Back

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Prepared 16 July 2013