In May, when the bitterness of Canada’s winter subsides and sprigs of green poke through patches of dead pasture, horse ranchers prepare for the bustle of new foals about to be born.
But those who raise horses for human consumption wonder how many of those seasons are left.
Jane, who asked that Modern Farmer not share her real name over fear of harassment from animal rights activists, has been breeding and raising Belgians and Percherons for nearly two decades in northern Alberta. About 25 percent of her animals get sent to an exporter at five to 10 months. There, they are raised for another 18 to 24 months before being shipped overseas for processing.
“We treat every horse with love and care, but the meat business is essential and complementary to our family’s entire operation and preserving cultural traditions as a Métis person. It would be hard to imagine life without it,” says Jane. Horses have important cultural significance and jobs in many Indigenous communities, including sleigh and wagon rallies. For Jane, those rallies are a way to preserve community and commune with nature, and she’ll typically attend a rally four times a year. But, she says, she’s not able to own and train horses and maintain their upkeep simply for these rallies.
Political Tug of War
Exporting horses for slaughter has become a thorny social and political issue in Canada. The country is the eighth largest exporter of horse meat in the world. In 2022, the industry brought in nearly $19 million to the country’s economy. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government committed to banning the live exporting of the animals upon re-election in 2021.
Calls from animal rights advocates for the federal government to follow through on those promises have grown louder in recent months. Most notably, Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden drafted a petition in February, asking the federal government to ban live export of horses for slaughter. Around the same time, a non-profit group called Animal Justice filed a legal complaint with the government after a December 2022 shipment of live horses to Japan exceeded the legal 28-hour limit where horses are allowed to be in crates without food or water. But the central concern among groups is that the horses are treated inhumanely, including when they are transported by airplane overseas, says Kaitlyn Mitchell, Animal Justice’s director of legal advocacy.
“The fact is that Canada has some of the weakest animal transport laws in the western world, and horses can be legally transported for up to 28 hours without food, water, and rest,” Mitchell wrote in an emailed response. “As the December 2022 shipment of horses from Winnipeg shows, those in the industry do not always comply with these incredibly weak standards… three horses collapsed during their grueling trip overseas, which was well over the 28-hour limit. Since the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) has refused to take any enforcement action in relation to that shipment, we are now considering our own legal options to ensure the law is upheld.”
Meanwhile, those in the horse meat industry say opposing parties are misinformed. And many sources told Modern Farmer they have been afraid to present their side publicly over the possibility that animal activists might find their operation, trespass on their property and issue threats. Their belief is that an export ban would result in negative implications from an economic, social and animal welfare standpoint.
A Sensitive Issue
Jane, who is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, says the policy change would impact her family’s ability to sustain its business. But more than that, she feels the decision is unpleasantly familiar to a past policy that sought to discriminate against Indigenous people looking to produce and harvest their own food.
The measure, called the Peasant Farm Policy, was implemented in the late 1800s by the federal government, and it set limits on Indigenous agriculture in the prairie provinces. It restricted the types of tools First Nations farmers could use on reserve lands, along with how much they grew and what they could sell, and reduced their ability to compete with settlers on the open market.
“The policy was trying to set us back because we were becoming too competitive… People still haven’t forgotten about that,” says Jane. “Is the pressure coming from rich, white women, like Jann Arden? These are outsiders who don’t know the industry?”
Jennifer Woods, director of the Animal Transportation Association and a veterinarian by trade, has been conducting independent audits throughout Canada’s animal agriculture supply chain since 2007. This involves going to see breeders and exporters and meeting CIFA officials at the airport to see the animals off. In the case of horse exports, she says she has been to countries such as Japan, to monitor how the animals are tended to on foreign soil. As a result, she echoed Jane’s sentiment about opponents being misinformed.
“There are a lot of other animal welfare issues that people are not paying attention to right now. Horses not being used for export are being mistreated and abandoned at feedlots,” Woods says. “I think the opposition is less about how humane it is to export and more about people’s sensitivities around eating horse meat.”
Japan, which has relied on Canada for the past 30 years, considers the raw meat of horses as a delicacy called “basashi.” In the country’s restaurants, customers will pay as much as 8,000 yen or about $100 a serving, comparable to what Canadians might pay for a top of-the-line steak. Recent statistics say Japan accounts for the largest portion of exports at an annual value of $14.7 million.
Woods says the December 2022 incident was a rare case, but that every proper protocol was followed under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s regulations.
“As anyone who travels knows, you are at the mercy of airlines and weather when traveling—by air, land, train or boat. That is why CFIA requires that all transporters have contingency plans in place to make sure you have a plan when your trip is going to exceed the allowed time,” she says. “Does it happen often with the Japanese horses? No. This is the first one in a long time.”
Canadian government statistics state the mortality rate of horses at all stages of export transport since 2013 is 0.012 percent.
Under CIFA regulations, horses are loaded into crates with the agency’s veterinary staff. Transporters are required to use foam pool noodles and flexible poles with rags on the end to start horses down a ramp into the crates. This is followed by a visual inspection to verify horses can stand in their preferred position and do not come into contact with the container cover. Inspectors are also required to verify at the airport that no horses are down or showing signs of distress that would make them unfit for transport.
Woods says her concern is that an export ban would have the opposite effect from what animal rights activists are intending. The 2006 Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in the US has increased the number of abandoned horses, Woods says, as people don’t have the financial means to care for them or a market to send them.
Prior to the legislation being passed, a study conducted by the Animal Welfare Council Inc., said the ban would likely result in a large number of abandoned or unwanted horses flooding public animal rescue facilities that are already overwhelmed. The report found that in 2005, the cost to maintain an unwanted horse until its natural death was on average $2,340 per year per horse, amounting to as much as $25,740. This figure does not include veterinary costs incurred if the horse is sick or injured.
An Uncertain Future
Kevin, an exporter from eastern Ontario, has seen the impact of the US legislation first hand. He has also asked that his full name not be shared for this story. He regularly attends market auctions where owners in the US are having trouble finding a buyer and as a result will abandon the animals on site.
“We’ll sometimes pick up horses that aren’t in the best condition and give them a good life,” he says.
Roughly 60 percent of Kevin’s horses are raised for meat. The remainder are sold as work or competition horses. He also maintains that opponents of the industry don’t understand the details, stating that those who are in the market for horse meat, especially Japan, are very particular about quality. He’s had buyers travel to Canada to inspect the animals before purchase.
“This is a product and we want our product to arrive at its destination in the best shape it can possibly be. Would you want to go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of grapes that were smashed?” he said. “People think that we’re evil and we don’t care. We do our best day in and day out to ensure these animals are kept in good health.”
Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, did not respond to a request for comment on the issue, but has publicly acknowledged the opposition to the ban and Arden’s recent petition. In her written reply, she re-affirmed the government’s commitment to implement a ban on the live export of horses for slaughter, while stating that the government is “performing its due diligence to minimize potential unintended consequences” around legal obligations, international trade commitments and relations, as well as acts and regulations involving animals more broadly. “Prior to the ban of the live export of horses for slaughter, the CFIA continues, in the meantime, to inspect all live horse shipments before export by air to verify that the horses are fit to travel and are transported in accordance with the Health of Animals Act.
Jane and Kevin, and others like them in the agriculture world who have relied on the horse meat market to support their families, hope governing officials take a moment to hear the voices of those who spend day in and day out with the animals. At present, it’s not clear to either breeders or exporters what the federal government’s plan or timeline is going forward.