Each year, around 100,000 horses are exported from Central and Eastern Europe for slaughter in Italy, France and Belgium in what can fairly be described as one of the cruellest and least regulated aspects of Europe’s live animal trade.
Poland is the biggest exporter of live horses for slaughter in Europe and its annual total amounts to 87,000 animals exported to the EU - 90 per cent going to Italy and 10 per cent to France and Belgium.
Ten years ago, there were one million horses in Poland but that number has now been reduced to 500,000. Nevertheless, each year, the drain continues (1). The majority come from small farmers who sell them to middlemen who then deliver them to the collection points of the principal transporting firms.
The breed most favoured is the handsome and powerful Polish working horse, easily identified by its broad chest, chestnut body and flaxen main and tail. It bears a strong resemblance to the British Suffolk Punch horses, once common in the Fenlands of Eastern England.
The biggest horse market takes place in March at Skaryszew, where Viva! filmed in the winter of 2000. Other major markets are Kiekrz near Poznan, Malbork, Kolobrzeg and Czestochowa, south of Warsaw, where thousands of horses are sold in a single day. The major registered horse traders in Poland are Animex SA, Warsaw (owned by Smithfield Foods Inc., USA) and Cosmos Czestochowa. Because of the high demand for horse meat, the trade is not only merely a means of disposal of old or unwanted horses. The financial rewards have encouraged farmers to sell fit and healthy horses, from four to seven years old, with a working life ahead of them. Other farmers are breeding horses additional to their needs in order to profit from the trade.
The average weight of the horses sold for meat is 600kg and the price fetched is approximately (US) $0.60 cents per kilo. Therefore the average total value of a live horse is $360 (approximately £240 sterling).
Most of the exported horses are sent from Poland to Italy, which involves an horrendously long journey. One of the furthest destinations is Sardinia, a journey of 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) which may take as long as 95 hours.
Both from Polish markets and those in Lithuania, horses are taken to the border crossing at Cieszyn, between Poland and the Czech Republic. The dangers the animals face include overcrowding, which can result in them falling and being trampled on. These dangers increase as the journey progresses because of the practice of loading additional horses en route through Poland.
There is an almost complete absence of veterinary inspection so by the time the horses reach the Czech border, they are already often ill or injured. It is supposedly illegal to transport diseased or injured animals from Poland and these horses should be off loaded. Viva!’s investigation reveals, however, that sick and injured horses are being transported and rest periods are being ignored. After just a three-hour break - rather than the 24 hours required by law - horses are reloaded onto the lorries to continue their last journey regardless of their condition.
The relentless nature of the trade is revealed by the export figures.
Live exports through Cieszyn crossing point 1999/2000
Month 2000 Horse numbers Truck numbers
1 Jan 5,204 212
2 Feb 4,625 191
3 March 4,485 187
Total for this quarter 14,314 590
Same period 1999 19,863 800
4 April 3,093 131
5 May 3,845 164
6 June 3,503 152
Total for this quarter 10,441 447
Same period 1999 17,667 738
7 July 3,173 137
8 Aug 3,095 131
9 Sept 2,896 122
Total for this quarter 9,164 390
Same period 1999 17,184 717
(Source: Agrosped Zebrzydowice, October 2000)
From Cieszyn, the horses are trucked all the way to Slovenia through the Czech Republic and then onwards through Slovakia and Hungary. This circuitous route is to avoid the stricter veterinary controls presently in force in Austria. Although common, this practice is illegal and prolongs the travelling time for many hours.
The swaying trucks make it difficult for the horses to remain upright, especially when they are tightly tethered to the vehicle bars. This practice is carried out to stop them from biting each other and is prohibited by law. Article 6, 7 of the Animal Welfare Act states: “Tightly tethering animals in a way that forces them into an unnatural position, causing unnecessary pain, injury or death, is forbidden.”
Every time the vehicle brakes, negotiates a corner or even changes gear, the horses have to shift their weight to avoid falling. Sometimes they lose their balance and do fall. Once down, they are likely to be trampled and wounded by their companions. For injured horses and smaller ponies and foals, this combination of overcrowding and lack of segregation by size can be deadly.
Downed horses may be unable to rise again, resulting in their struggling desperately to regain their feet, being urinated and defecated on, stood on and, not infrequently, being trampled to death (3).
Upon arrival at the staging points, these downed horses are either dragged off the truck with chains or are subjected to violent treatment to induce them to stand. This can involve brutal kickings, beatings with heavy sticks or being goaded with an electric cattle prod, inserted into their rectum (4). Even the healthiest of horses are liable to fall under the prevailing conditions of transport because the long journey times - commonly as long as four days without rest which invariably leads to exhaustion.
The effect of these conditions is that by the time the horses reach Hungary, just half way through their journey to the Italian abattoirs, many are already in a dreadful condition - exhausted and dehydrated (5). Numerous injuries have been observed, such as eye, head, chest or leg wounds and some horses are already dying or dead. By this stage of their journey, all the horses are experiencing profound stress.
They enter the EU at Gorizia in northern Italy, on the Slovenian border, by which time increasing numbers are in an advanced stages of physical and mental deterioration or are dead. Many of those who have survived this far still face long journeys - as far as Bari in southern Italy, to the west coast of Italy and onwards by ferry to Sardinia, where they are driven across the island to be slaughtered in Cagliari.
On arrival at the slaughterhouses they are again brutally treated and are either driven or, because of their poor condition and inability to stand, are frequently dragged from the lorries into what can only be described as killing factories. The normal process of slaughter is stunning - required by law - followed by throat cutting. The usual method of stunning is the captive bolt pistol, which drives a four inch metal bolt into the animals’ foreheads. The concussive effect of this impact supposedly renders them unconscious. All too often, this requirement is either ignored or done incompetently and the animals regain consciousness while their throats are being slit. Many are slaughtered in full view of the others, which is a further contravention of the law on slaughter (5).
Some of the slaughter-bound horses from Poland were originally bred for racing but are either no longer competitive or have failed to make the grade. Many of the horses used to entertain Polish children by providing rides at summer camps, ranches and riding academies are also sold for meat when they can no longer perform. Other horses who make up the export trade include a large number of retired agricultural working horses, camp, show and rental horses and urban carriage horses.
It is often impossible to ascertain the true background of horses because of the lack of reliable animal origin certificates in Poland. This lack of control can result in consumer fraud and horse theft, the thieves knowing that they will easily obtain a false certificate of origin with no questions asked and no investigations carried out.
As a consequence, many old, weak, tired and injured horses - even blind horses (6) are forced to endure interminable journeys in appalling conditions. There is no peaceful end or retirement after a life time’s labour for Polish horses. Seemingly, loyalty plays no part in the final chapter of their lives and they are condemned to face death in cramped trailers often with no food or water. Their suffering is acute and involves:
- unevenly loaded lorries
- transporting young animals with adult stock
- transporting chronically diseased horses
- fitting ventilation bars so closely together that it is impossible to feed or water animals through them.
Transit of horses trough Poland (mostly from Lithuania to Italy)
First half of 1996 5,024
First half of 1997 2,245
First quarter of 1998 1,830
First quarter of 1999 2,413
First quarter of 2000 2,489
Viva! believes that the consumption of horse meat is unnecessary and retrograde in terms of animal welfare, morality and human health. However, the live horse trade begs the question why does it exists at all? Why are animals forced to endure such terrible suffering over such long distances simply to be killed on arrival? This almost certainly has more to do with the way in which the meat is sold after slaughter - labelled as French, Belgian or Italian rather than Polish or Lithuanian and commanding a higher price. Clearly, what begins as an abuse of democracy ends in a similar way.
Horse slaughter for human consumption is not inevitable and does not have to be accepted in a civilised society. It has already been outlawed in California when, in 1998, the people of California became the first in the US to ban it. They went further and the legislation prohibits any California horse from being shipped out of the state for the purpose of slaughter for human consumption. Californians voted overwhelmingly for this humanitarian law under a state initiative - Proposition 6.
In Britain, although it would be considered a restriction of trade under EU regulations to ban the export of horses for meat, a series of minimum value requirements has limited the trade - placing the minimum value at which a horse can be exported above that which makes the horse meat trade profitable. There has been an erosion of this restriction as horse meat prices have risen and a limited trade is underway. Most British people have consistently shown their revulsion at this trade and believe that it was banned some years ago. They are unaware that it still continues but at a lower level and it is something Viva! will be addressing in the future.
Poland’s situation is that existing laws which could be used to ban the trade are simply being ignored despite protests from numerous animal welfare groups all over Europe.
In the EU, transport of live animals is regulated by Directive 91/628, issued on 19 November 1991, and all animal transport within the EU and for export and import, is supposed to be in accordance with these regulations. In theory, no animal - from cattle to horses - should travel for more than eight hours in ‘basic’ vehicles without being unloaded, fed, watered and rested for 24 hours. Transport firms are supposed to, provide a written commitment to respect the directive, including providing a travel plan. In reality, protection for animals in the EU are little better than in Poland, as will be shown later.
Dr Franz Fischler, member of the European Commission responsible for agriculture and rural development, declared that animal welfare will be his major priority:
”The new Treaty of Amsterdam promotes animal welfare as an objective to be given full regard in the Community's agriculture, transport, internal market and research policies. This was laid down in a supplementary protocol complementing the Treaty in the field of animal welfare.” (14)