Federal food agency defends transport of live horses for slaughter, human consumption in Japan

The federal government is trying to quash a lawsuit launched by animal welfare advocates who want to end the export of Canadian horses for slaughter and human consumption in Japan and South Korea.

Equine welfare advocacy group claims long-haul shipments are inhumane, unsafe

The federal government is defending its enforcement of rules for shipping live horses to Japan for slaughter. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is trying to quash a lawsuit launched by animal welfare advocates who want to end the export of Canadian horses for slaughter and human consumption in Japan and South Korea.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is defending its equine transportation and enforcement policies against claims that it's failing to meet legal obligations to ensure humane and safe shipments.

In its June 17 court filing, the CFIA also said that revised regulations set to kick in next year make the case "moot."

The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC), the group behind the legal challenge, insists the new rules slated for February 2020 could put horses on long-haul overseas flights to Asia at even greater risk.

CHDC animal law lawyer Rebeka Breder said the conditions the horses experience during transport cause distress and danger. Large, flighty animals are often crammed together without the adequate headroom required by law, the group claims.

"They're exhibiting signs of stress. There have also been injuries, there have been deaths over the last several years," Breder told CBC News.

"Generally speaking, the shipments are not safe for horses. We know that for a fact."

Canada exports thousands of horses each year to Japan, a market where some consumers enjoy the meat as a raw delicacy. In 2018, Canada also began shipping live horses to South Korea.

In its recent court filing, CFIA said the lawsuit is based on "cultural norms" and CHDC's interpretation of what is, and is not, an appropriate food animal.

"However, the inevitable reality is that the CFIA's role, on the facts of this case, is to determine whether the horses are healthy for export and are being safely transported," the filing said. "There is no requirement on the CFIA to obtain a particular enforcement result and it is well recognized that perfection in enforcement can never be more than an unattainable goal."

The rules for shipping horses

The existing Health of Animals Regulations say larger horses must be segregated from each other and set minimum requirements for headroom clearance. The CHDC lawsuit said the CFIA is not always in compliance with the regulations.

New 2020 rules will eliminate the segregation requirement, with a stated goal of giving shippers greater flexibility so that compatible horses can travel together with less anxiety.

Maureen Harper, a retired veterinarian who worked for CFIA for 30 years, said "compatibility" is difficult for an inspector to assess at the airport.

Horse meat is a delicacy in Japan. Canada exports thousands of live horses for slaughter to the country each year. ( Chalermsak/Shutterstock)

Larger, stronger horses should be segregated to avoid injuries from kicking, biting, toppling or trampling, she said. Horses also need space to maintain their balance in transit, especially during take-off or landing.

Harper said the public knows little about Canada's horse export and slaughter industry and she believes most Canadians see horses as companions like dogs and cats — not as food.

"Everybody that I speak to, they're just totally horrified when I tell them what's happening and I think the CFIA has a huge role to play here and unfortunately, in my view, they've dropped the ball," she said.

Horse welfare 'top priority'

Eliot Bouvry of Alberta-based Bouvry Exports — which produces horse meat for export, among other products — said the welfare of horses and other livestock is a "top priority" for his company and the CFIA.

Horses are inspected by CFIA vets at the airport before departure for cuts, bruises, limps or sickness. Animals are transported on single-deck trailers that have been sanitized and layered with fresh shavings according to Canada's livestock transport regulations, he said.

"Other species/livestock are transported long distances for slaughter and it's not a topic of discussion," he said in a statement to CBC News. "Although activists keep the industry accountable, we do not consider it truthful that it is an animal welfare issue. For (some) people it is an ethical problem, which is another debate." 

Business vs. animal welfare?

Breder accuses the CFIA is putting business interests ahead of animal welfare. 

"There's a lot of money at stake, and it's quite clear to the CHDC that what is really at issue here are industry interests, not the interest and the welfare of animals and the way that they're transported," she said. "It is simply the bottom line to make as much profit as possible."

The CFIA rejects the claim that industry sales are driving policy and enforcement, and maintains that all animals, including horses, are "properly certified, fit to travel and transported humanely in a way that does not cause injury or undue suffering."

The agency said new rules will strengthen safety regulations for horse transport.

"The updated regulations establish clear and science-informed requirements and thus better reflect the needs of animals and improve overall animal welfare in Canada," CFIA said in a statement.

Last year, 3,871 horses worth $26.5 million were shipped to Japan. Exports were fewer in number than during the previous year, but had a significantly higher value.

Canada also ships fresh, chilled and frozen horse meat to Japan worth about $29 million annually, and millions of dollars more to European countries, including France and Switzerland.

While it's considered a food taboo in most parts of North America, horse meat is sold and served in some grocery stores and restaurants in Canada.