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Animal Welfare and Horse Processing Fact Sheet

The Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada answers questions about horse processing and animal welfare. Horses must be treated humanely and with dignity throughout their life. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law.

In Canada, horses are generally not considered as food animals. However, horses are humanely euthanized in Canada for human consumption abroad and for domestic markets. While horses may be humanely euthanized for both human and non-human (i.e., pet food, zoo animals) consumption, it is the human consumption of horsemeat that has drawn the most criticism mainly by animal activist groups.

Whether an individual accepts that euthanizing horses and processing the meat for human consumption is considered acceptable, generally revolves around how the individual designates horses or even a particular horse: as ‘livestock’, ‘companion animals’ and / or ‘pets’.

Horses are generally categorized as livestock in Canada. Alberta’s Animal Protection Regulations include horses within the definition of livestock. Other provinces define horses similarly, as does the federal Health of Animals Regulations.

Many people, including some active within the horse industry, see horses as companion animals – and consider it to be repugnant to send ‘companion animals’ to a meat plant to be euthanized for food. That same person however, may consider it acceptable to send a bad tempered or cull horse to an auction knowing the end result will be that the horse goes to a meat plant. Others always categorize horses as livestock; even raise horses for meat purposes.

Statements such as “horses are such majestic animals, they should not be used for meat” or “horses are members of the family, they do not deserve to go for slaughter” point to this as an emotional or cultural issue, not an animal welfare issue. Separating out emotions from any animal welfare concerns associated with horses as food producing animals is challenging.

The bottom line is horses must be treated humanely and with dignity up to and including their death no matter how they are viewed by the owner and / or others. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law. To focus on what happens after the horse is euthanized is immaterial to the welfare of the horse.

It is a right in our democratic society to make selections of food and animal ownership within current laws and regulations.

Why do we have horsemeat processing plants?

Horses are considered food-producing animals. Over one billion people, or 16% of the world population, eat horsemeat. It’s an important human protein source. Europeans and Asians are the largest consumers and Canada’s main export markets for the meat. The consumption of horsemeat has both religious and cultural foundations within these countries. Horsemeat has more protein, less fat, less cholesterol, less sodium and more iron than the same amount of high-quality beef. Horsemeat is also used in pet food and to feed zoo animals.

Abattoirs also offer horse owners with an economical, responsible and humane end of life option for their horses. Some owners feel more comfortable taking their horse to a plant themselves to ensure careful transport, handling and euthanasia for their horse. This especially applies for aged or lame animals that, under CFIA regulations, need to be shipped directly to a meat plant. The horse owner can call the plant, ask for a delivery time, deliver his/her horse and supervise its handling and immediate euthanasia. If the horse is left at the plant, the plant provides a death certificate confirming the horse was euthanized.

How many horses are processed in Canada and where do these animals come from?

In 2010, 89,030 horses were processed for meat in Canada. In 2009, approximately 95,000 horses were processed for meat.

The horses come from across Canada and the United States. In 2010, 66,168 horses were imported from the USA for processing and feeder purposes. Horses can be sold directly to the plants and / or purchased at auction markets. There are horses that are purpose-bred and raised for meat production as part of the animal agriculture industry in North America.

Prior to the US plant closures in 2007, 50,000 horses were processed annually for meat in Canada. Basically that number has been the same for many years.

Why were the horse meat processing plants closed in the United States?

The push to stop processing horses for food in the US essentially began in the late 1990’s. Animal activists have been very successful in raising the profile of this practice as inhumane and un-American. This was done at a state level through legislation in the US and the enforcement of some very outdated laws.

A very common misunderstanding is that the sale and processing of horses for meat is illegal across the US – this is not true. Most states allow the sale and processing of horses for meat. There are currently several initiatives underway to reestablish horse processing plants within several jurisdictions.

Are there laws regarding the humane treatment of horses and who enforces them?

Humane treatment of horses throughout their lifetime and at death is a priority. Canadian legislation is in place and is enforced to ensure the humane treatment of horses, at the farm, at auctions, while in transport and at all federally inspected meat plants.

Federally in Canada, the humane euthanasia of horses for processing is enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). CFIA inspectors, stationed at every federally registered abattoir, monitor the humane handling and slaughter of food animals. Provincial laws are enforced by provincial inspectors, the SPCA and law enforcement officers (depending on the province).

The federal Health of Animals Act, Transportation of Animals Regulations state no one can load or cause to be loaded, transport or unload animals in a way that would cause injury or undue suffering. The regulations:

  • prohibit the transportation of an animal “that by reason of infirmity, illness, injury, fatigue or any other cause cannot be transported without undue suffering during the expected journey”;
  • prohibit overcrowding and the transportation of animals that are unfit to travel;
  • prohibit the transportation of non-ambulatory animals, for purposes other than veterinary treatment or diagnosis;
  • require an animal that becomes non-ambulatory or otherwise unfit for transport while en route be taken to the nearest suitable place to receive proper care;
  • state the requirements for provision of food, water, and rest at specific intervals;
  • state the requirements for protection from adverse weather; adequate ventilation; use of proper containers and transport vehicles and the segregation of incompatible animals.

The federal Meat Inspection Act and Regulations set standards for the humane handling and slaughter of food animals in federally inspected abattoirs. The law specifies that:

  • Animals must not be handled in a manner that inflicts avoidable distress or pain;
  • Sick or injured animals must be segregated and handled properly;
  • All animals must undergo an ante mortem examination / inspection;
  • All animals must be rendered unconscious prior to being bled with acceptable methods stipulated;
  • Holding pens must have adequate space and ventilation and all animals must have access to potable water and, if held for more than 24 hrs, feed.

What is the equine industry doing to ensure horses destined for processing are treated humanely?

In Canada, we set the highest standards for all aspects of horse production. The equine industry has developed guidelines for the care and handling of horses, including unfit animals and humane handling and transport training programs.

The industry also formed the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada (HWAC), an organization formed to promote the humane handling of horses throughout all their life stages including processing. HWAC and industry believe that all horses destined for processing must be:

  • Treated humanely and with dignity;
  • Transported to the production facility according to current national regulations;
  • Euthanized in accordance with the guidelines adopted and published by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

Current industry initiatives include:

  • The Recommended Handling Guidelines and Animal Welfare Assessment Tool for horses destined for processing provides abattoirs and third party auditors with acceptable standards for care, handling and processing as well as an audit tool. This HWAC initiative was completed Fall 2010.
  • The Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals – horses, originally developed in 1998 is being revised through the National Farm Animal Care Council. The Codes are an industry initiative that promotes sound management and welfare practices, including recommendations for humane transportation, handling and processing. The revisions will be completed in 2013.
  • The installation of third party video auditing / surveillance in horsemeat plants to monitor animal welfare and food-safety procedures.

How would eliminating horse processing in Canada affect horses?

Eliminating licensed horse processing in Canada would have a very adverse affect on the welfare of horses in North America. As witnessed in the US, the elimination of horse processing has resulted in an increase in the number of unwanted horses, and hence the number of neglected horses. Desperate owners have been abandoning horses along roads, in open areas or at auction yards because they can no longer afford to feed or care for their horses and felt they had no other options.

There is no national plan in Canada or the US to manage excess numbers of horses or to provide rescue agencies with regulations or financial support. The cost of maintaining unwanted horses is unknown, but an Alberta survey of horse owners suggests that one horse can cost $3,522 annually to maintain.

Consequences of a ban on horse meat plants in Canada include:

  • Even more horses may be transported to Mexico, where animal welfare laws and regulations are reportedly less than Canada and the US.
  • A drop in economic value of horses would likely increase owner neglect issues. Economic constraints are often identified as the primary reason surrounding neglect.
  • The dispatch and disposal of unwanted horses also has an associated cost. There is a risk that neglectful owners who are unwilling to bear the resulting expense may not humanely euthanize their horse in a timely manner.
  • Enforcement agencies would be ill equipped to address the anticipated increase in animal welfare complaints. Efforts would be required to ensure horses are properly euthanized with appropriate carcass disposal.
  • All horses destined for meat plants are not unwanted by their previous owner. There is a segment of the horse industry that breeds and raises horses solely for human food consumption. It is estimated that 1/3 of the horses processed in Alberta are purpose raised for meat. These animals are wanted, but their purpose is solely as a food animal – no different than cattle, sheep, pigs or chickens that are raised for their meat.
  • The choice to consume horsemeat or any other food is a democratic choice in a democratic country.

Alternately, we must continue to increase the awareness of humane husbandry practices during handling, transporting and processing of horses in Canada. All horses must be dealt with humanely and with respect during all stages of their life.

There is no excuse for animal abuse, not on the farm, in transport or at the processing plants.

This document was created by the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada ( and partners. It may be quoted, used or referenced in part or in whole.

Horse Processing and Animal Welfare (pdf) 30-Dec-2010