At least twice a year, horses from Manitoba are loaded onto a plane in Winnipeg and sent halfway across the world for slaughter.
In Japan horse meat is eaten in the form of sashimi, in thin slices dipped in soy sauce. In countries like Kazakhstan and Switzerland it’s served as steak and sausage.
In 2016, more than 300 horses were shipped from Winnipeg to Japan, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Japan is one of the biggest horse meat importers, according to the CFIA.
“It’s very rich in iron. It’s eaten in places like Japan, France, Switzerland and Quebec,” Jessica Davis, co-owner of Hooves N’ Hounds, a local organization that rescues horses.
WATCH: Live horses loaded onto crates and shipped from the Calgary International Airport on May 16, 2017
How horses are shipped
The horses are usually loaded into crates on a plane and inspected by federal veterinarians to see if they are suitable for transport and if there is appropriate aircraft accommodations, the CFIA states.
“The CFIA inspectors work diligently to enforce the Health of Animals Act and Regulations to ensure that all animals, including horses, are properly certified, fit to travel and transported humanely,” Maria Kubacki with the CFIA said.
Dr. Maureen Harper, a former veterinarian with the CFIA, disagrees with the agency and believes they are breaking its own regulations.
According to Section 141.9 of the Health of Animal Regulation, horses over 14 hands in height must be segregated for air transport. The containers also have to be built tall enough, so an animal’s head is not touching the top of the container.
However, the CFIA said horses are shipped together in crates and not segregated if they are”assessed to be compatible during travel.”
“The CFIA feels horses travel better together than apart,” Harper said. “This is okay if the horses know one another, but not when they’re strangers.”
Harper said the horses are usually quickly loaded on the crates, meaning it would be nearly impossible for veterinaries to tell which animals know one another.
“The CFIA is turning a blind eye to their own regulations,” Harper said. “They are stuffing them in like a can of sardines.”
According to a letter from Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Lawrence MacAulay, when horses are shipped to Japan by air, professional judgement and previous experience indicate that the horses can travel safely and comfortably without segregation.
Global News reached out to a company that ships horses out of Manitoba for comment, but they did not want to comment.
Horse meat regulation
Davis said many horse owners, such as herself, inject their animals with an anti-inflammatory pill, known as phenylbutazone (bute). It helps alleviate inflammation in horses, but it’s not fit for human consumption, according to researchers.
Most drugs clear out of a horse’s system within six months, but some remain a permanent danger to humans, she said.
“The meat is not being tested like cattle and pig meat,” she said.
Health Canada said bute is approved to be used in horses but is not approved for use in food-producing animals (including horses slaughtered for human consumption).
“The agency has zero tolerance for phenylbutazone in food, including horse meat for human consumption,” a CFIA spokesperson stated in an email.
According to the CFIA, the federal government tests around 300 samples of horse meat for bute annually. But that means out of 54,000 horses slaughtered in 2016, less than 0.60 per cent were tested.
Other countries, like Japan and France, do their own testing of horse meat imported from Canada.
Canada’s large horse market
Canada has become a major international horse meat supplier since a U.S. federal court ruling in 2007 closed the last horse-processing plant in that country.
In March 2017, 196 horses were shipped from Canada to Japan (shipments usually go out from Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg). The average price of a horse was $5,490.
More than 54,000 horses were slaughtered in Canada in 2016. That’s nearly 13.8 million kilograms of horse meat that was shipped to countries like Japan, Switzerland, France and Belgium in 2016, according to the federal government. Some horse meat is consumed in Canada, mostly in Quebec, but much of it is exported.
WATCH: Horse meat found in many grocery stores in Montreal
A delicacy in Japan
Horse meat is a delicacy in many parts of the world, especially in Kumamto, a city in Japan’s island of Kyushu. There’s even a store and restaurant — Ma Sakura — that specializes in horse meat.
“Our shop fell in love with the taste of Kumamoto horse meat and opened it in November 2005,” Hideto Takaki, an employee of the store said.
“Horse meat, it is lower calorie, low fat, low cholesterol, low saturated fatty acid, high protein than cattle pig chicken and other livestock species,” Takaki said.
The horse is eaten raw, fried, boiled and grilled.
Although it’s a popular meat in other countries, consuming horse can be a taboo industry in Canada, according to Dr. Melanie Joy, a Harvard psychologist and author of Why We Eat Pigs, Love Dogs and Wear Cows.
“We haven’t been socialized for disconnect with horses,” Joy said. “Animals like monkeys or gorillas we see as beings, for example, not food. It’s the difference between eating someone, not something.”
The taboo industry has sparked some concerns for Canadians, including the advocacy group, Canadian Horse Defend Coalition (CHDC). The group protests the live shipments of horses and documents the animals being sent overseas.
“Horses have not traditionally been raised as food animals, and we are committed to exposing the health and safety risks involved in this industry,” the Canadian Horse Defend Coalition stated in an email.
With files from the Canadian press