Canada’s food safety system has been under fire ever since a listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people in 2008 and an E. coli contamination in 2012 that led to the largest meat recall in Canadian history.
In January, those incidents and others led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give Canada its lowest grade for meat-exporting countries.
But in the shadow of those well-publicized scandals, critics are questioning the safety and oversight of another, lesser-known Canadian export: horse meat.
“When they’re born, nobody is breeding these horses thinking that at the end of the day they’re going to head to slaughter,” says Mindy Lovell.
Lovell has spent all her life around horses. These days, she spends much of her time rescuing them from Canada’s slaughter pipeline. Canada has one of the largest horse slaughter industries in the world, slaughtering between 70,000 and 115,000 horses every year for the last six years.
But Lovell says most of those horses are contaminated with veterinary drugs, many of which are banned by Health Canada for human consumption.
“99.99 per cent of all horses, donkeys, mules, whatever, have been on these substances at some point in their life,” she says. “It is such a common knowledge, I mean, you can’t even plead ignorance.”
WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with horse rescuer, Mindy Lovell.
One of the most common of those drugs is phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory and painkiller used so often it’s referred to as “horse aspirin.” But in humans, it can cause potentially fatal disorders of the blood and immune system.
On its website, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it has “zero tolerance” for those drugs getting into the food supply.
But it happens.
In 2012, European regulators announced the seizure of Canadian horse meat that tested positive for phenylbutazone and clenbuterol, another banned substance. That wasn’t supposed to happen after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency required all horses presented for slaughter to have an Equine Information Document, or EID. The EID contains information meant to make a horse’s drug history more traceable.
But Shelley Grainger of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition says that system has been a failure.
“We were able to report – and with evidence – on EIDs that had been doctored, ones that had omissions, horses that didn’t match the description on the EIDs,” she says.
She says the EID system relies almost entirely on the honesty of people in the industry.
“They’re going to provide the paperwork so that they can do their business. And fill it out in the way that it needs to be filled out so that it meets the criteria … it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s filled out according to the truth.”
Jeff Grof is a key figure in the slaughter pipeline. He buys at least 100 horses every month, and ships them to Viande Richelieu, a slaughterhouse in Quebec. He admits the system can be scammed.
“Is it possible for someone to try and evade the system? Yes. We could do a lot of things better, not just in the meat business, in every business. There’s people that do stuff wrong, okay?”
WATCH BELOW: 16×9 caught up with Jeff Grof to ask him about his practice, and even he admitted the system can be scammed.
But under the law, Grof is only required to submit valid EIDs; he isn’t responsible for the accuracy of the information on the paperwork.
“The government sets the rules out that are necessary for us to follow,” he says. “If somebody falsifies a paper or does something wrong, that’s for them to investigate and figure out.”
NDP MP Alex Atamanenko was the Agriculture Critic from 2006-2011, and says when compared to other Canadian meat industries, the regulations covering horse meat are weak and riddled with contradictions.
For example, despite the fact that CFIA claims it has zero tolerance for banned veterinary drugs, it allows horses to be slaughtered for meat as long as they’re accompanied by an EID declaring the horse has been drug-free for six months. And no proof is required.
“Basically we’re allowing meat to go into the food chain that we don’t have any control over,” he says. “We have those guidelines in our regulation that explicitly state, if there are any drugs that are administered at any time and in an animal’s lifetime, a horse’s lifetime, that meat is no longer fit for human consumption…if our regulations state that it’s a lifetime ban, why do we even have a six-month document?”
In an email to 16×9, the CFIA said its testing typically finds 98 per cent of samples are clean. But out of 82,000 horses slaughtered in 2012, only 143 samples were tested, a miniscule 0.0017 per cent.
“I never saw or heard of the CFIA doing drug screening,” says Henry Skjerven.
Skjerven is the former director of Natural Valley Foods, a beef and horse slaughter plant that went out of business in 2009. He says the few inspectors in slaughterhouses are stretched much too thin, and can’t realistically be expected to inspect every animal, as required by law.
“The horses were coming in many times offloaded into the hold pen outside the plant, and fifteen minutes later they’re being killed. They see that animal for how long? Seconds. So did they have time to do this and do that, and get everything done they’re supposed to do? My personal opinion is, no.”
WATCH BELOW: Former beef and horse meat plant director Henry Skjerven talks about what goes on inside Canada’s horse slaughter pipeline.
Skjerven says the CFIA knows the EID system isn’t sufficient to track horses’ veterinary history and ensure the meat is safe, but the agency continues to look the other way.
“Have they got their ostrich a** in the air and their head in the sand? Yeah. There is no traceability,” he says. “Yes, the CFIA has changed regulations, but if you actually look at what’s actually going on in the industry, it’s window dressing.”
“So you kind of have to ask yourself what is the mandate,” says MP Alex Atamanenko.
“Is it strictly to ensure the safety of meat or is it also to promote the industry? And sometimes, when you have both of those mandates, there’s a conflict. And I would suspect that when it comes to the horse slaughter industry, probably the promotion takes predominance over the safety aspect.”
The CFIA declined 16×9’s requests for on-camera interview. Mindy Lovell says it’s blatantly obvious the current regulations aren’t working.
“If they only accepted horses with traceable medical records there would be no industry. It would take somebody to die before they will pay attention.”