Horse slaughter and horsemeat: the facts

A collaboration "for the horses" by

 Connie from California EquusEditorial


Eva from Queensland AnimalWelfare

Text Box: Articles from around the world exposing racing's dirty little secret - the widescale slaughter of failed racehorses




[Australia] [Canada] [Europe] [Ireland] [Japan] [New Zealand] [United Kingdom][United States]



(Compiled July 2006)


The slaughter of horses for human consumption is a controversial and secretive business, its existence hard to accept by horse owners, unheard of by most members of the public. Even Austrade has it effectively smoke-screened, listing one of the companies involved as an exporter of “game meats”.[1]  

But the export of horsemeat from Australia has been going on since the 1970s, though only in a small way back then. The first major export was 7777 tonnes in 1981. The biggest ever year was 1986 when 9327 tonnes were shipped out, representing the slaughter of well over 30,000 horses. After that, although it fluctuated, there was a steady decline to 6000 tonnes in 1999, then it halved again to some 3000 tonnes in 2003, representing about 10,000 horses. But the price has steadily risen, due at least in part to the mad cow disease scares causing people to turn away from beef. The approximate export value per kilogram in 2004 was $3.30 compared with $2.70 in 1999.[2] This translates to a great deal more on the dinner table, over US$50/kg according to some sources.[3

It is not we Australians who are eating our horses because it is illegal to eat horsemeat here. It is diners mainly in Europe who are indulging, plus some Japanese. The two abattoirs in Australia licensed to export horsemeat are in fact Belgian-owned. They are at Peterborough in South Australia (Metro Velda Pty Ltd) and Caboolture abattoir in Queensland (Meramist Pty Ltd).  

As with cattle and other types of livestock, the best meat comes from younger animals in good condition with quality muscling. So it is not the old, broken-down horses tired of living that are killed at these two horsemeat abattoirs - they go instead to one of the 30-odd knackeries throughout Australia, there to be processed for petfood, fertiliser, hides etc. No, it is much younger horses mostly still in their prime which are slaughtered for human consumption. Exempt from this group are usually pony and draught types, which are less preferred for various reasons. Grey horses are not normally accepted either because of the likelihood of malignant melanoma, a human health risk.[4]  

So where are these quality younger animals, rarely past middle years, coming from? It is difficult to get a breakdown of breeds/types sold for slaughter. The selling agents do not keep a record and the abattoirs are not forthcoming. But even in the absence of documented figures, the finger must be pointed firmly at the racing industry, which has a very high attrition rate of fine quality, well-muscled horses still in their prime often with no road open except to a horsemeat abattoir. A significant statistic is that the peak slaughter years of the 80s also saw the highest number of Thoroughbred foals born, culminating in a record 23,697 in 1989. Apart from minor fluctuations, every year after that saw a steady decline to about 17,000 foals born in 2004.[5] This fall was paralleled by a decline in horsemeat production.  It is logical to assume that the decreasing foal crop was heavily biased towards the lower end of the Thoroughbred market and therefore representative of those foals which, had they been born, would have been most likely to contribute to the horsemeat trade.

Harness racing is a related source, but it is a considerably smaller industry with a lower attrition rate because standarbreds start racing when older and stay racing longer. Pleasure horses, show and working horses and the equestrian industry in general are other sources, but the percentage would be small in comparison with Thoroughbreds because, even in the toughest disciplines, there is never the attrition rate at such a young age.  A compelling reason why some do find their way to the horsemeat abattoirs though is the cost advantage in comparison with euthanasia and disposal by more compassionate means. An example from America – “Euthanizing a horse costs between $75 and $150, and disposing of the body when it cannot be buried, costs at least $250. Sending a horse to slaughter, however, nets an average $500 profit.”[6]

Another contribution to the horsemeat industry comes from the annual cull of feral horses or brumbies. Truckloads of them are transported vast distances to the abattoirs from as far away as Western Australia and the Northern Territory. But even they only represent 20- 25% of the total numbers slaughtered.[7] Of major concern, discussed in more detail under Horse welfare: transport and floating, is the stress associated with their capture, yarding and loading and then the transport itself often in double decker units designed for cattle, and a welfare code that allows them to be trucked 36 hours without water or feed.

All indications are that racing is a major contributor to the horsemeat export trade. An amazing statistic from the U.S. is that the removal of tax benefits which encouraged the breeding of racehorses saw the total number of horses slaughtered drop from 300,000 in 1990 to 88,000 in 2005.[6] That’s a whopping 70% reduction despite an influx of Premarin mares since 2002, though an offset has been an increase in rescue organizations. 

In Australia, the evidence is that failed/retired racehorses and broodmares are making up at least 60% of the industry. Some of them are just two and three years old. In a personal communication, a buyer of slaughter horses in Queensland estimated that about 80% of the horses he deals in are Thoroughbreds, 50%-60% of which are killed at Caboolture abattoir for their meat, which is exported overseas for human consumption. Some of the others are purchased for the equestrian market. The rest go to the knackery at nearby Rosewood.  In the first part of 2006, Caboolture abattoir was killing about 150 horses on one day of the week, though it can and has processed 700 head a week.

Personal observation over a two-year period of horses collected in a nearby paddock prior to transport to slaughter revealed that at least 80% of them were Thoroughbreds. They were unmistakeably racing and stud farm rejects by their type and system of branding.

A sad truth about the racing industry and one never advertised is that worldwide, some 30% of horses bred never even start in a race due to injury or lack of ability. In addition, an Australian study (which no doubt reflects the situation elsewhere) found that 40% of 1804 racehorses aged 2-5 years and actively in work and racing over a season earned no money at all, while the earnings of 87% of them were insufficient to cover training costs.[8] But while ever unwanted horses of any breed or type continue to be bred, slaughter and the horsemeat trade will remain options for their disposal, a profitable form of convenience euthanasia.



[1] Austrade Australia entry for Metro Velda Pty Ltd,,0_S1-1_-2_5-3_CANB4676107-4_-5_-6_-7_,00.html 

[2] Agricultural Data on FAOSTAT  (Food and Agriculture Organization of the US Statistics) 

[3] Frank Fitzpatrick.  Awaiting retired racehorses: salvation or slaughter? Posted 13/6/2006. 

[4] RH Sutton and GT Coleman. Melanoma and the Graying Horse.  RIRDC Report 1997.

[5] Australian Racing Fact Book 2004-05. 

[6] The Killing Floor: Three Slaughterhouses Marked the End of the Road for 88,000 American Horses in 2005. But it's Europeans Who Are Eating the Meat. E Magazine, Josh Harkinson, May/June 2006 

[7] Report by the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare. Culling of Large Feral Animals in the Northern Territory, Canberra, June 1991

[8] SJ More. A longitudinal study of racing Thoroughbreds. AVJ, Vol. 77, Feb 1999.


Further reading (Australian articles):

Horse Racing: The glitz, the glamour, the grim reality >

Horse Racing Kills >

Cedar Springs Horses Inc. Giving unwanted racehorses an alternative to slaughter>


Contributed by Connie

On the vast prairies and provinces of Canada, ranching is the lifeblood of many families Often, family farms are handed down through the generations, and these farmers take pride in breeding quality livestock, including the horse. At the same time, there are three federally licensed abattoirs in Canada, certified for horse slaughter for human consumption.  More >



Contributed by Connie

In northern Europe in pre-Christian times, horses were eaten as part of the Teutonic religious ceremonies associated with Odin. France has relished horsemeat since 1807, when Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief directed the starving troops at the Battle of Eylau to eat the flesh of horses fallen on the battlefield. Horsemeat also supplemented the French diet during the hardships of the Siege of Paris (1870-71) and eventually became a staple in European cuisine ..... More >


(Compiled August 2006)

Ireland’s horsemeat exports have gradually dropped since a peak of 4,483 tonnes in 1967, which represented the slaughter of some 15,000 horses.  By the mid-1980s this had halved and by 2000 was down to 750,000 tonnes equalling about 2500 horses; it has continued to decline ever since.[1]   

There are two abattoirs in Ireland producing horsemeat for human consumption abroad, one is in Co Kildare, the other in Co Kilkenny. There is loose reference that the breeds/types slaughtered are roughly one third Thoroughbreds from the racing industry, one third sports/show/pleasure horses (many of which are Thoroughbreds or thoroughbred types) and one third semi-wild or indigenous horses. Extrapolating from the horsemeat export figures, this translates to a surprisingly low figure of just 800 or so failed/retired racehorses processed each year, which would represent only 7% of the current annual registration of about 12,000 Thoroughbred foals.[2] 

But the home slaughter figures are not true estimates. Ireland is Europe’s largest producer of Thoroughbreds and ranks third in the world behind the U.S. and Australia. It is home to the giant Coolmore Stud, the biggest horse breeding enterprise in the world, standing 21 stallions in 2006.  A great many Irish-bred horses are exported, particularly to the UK and Europe for racing and breeding purposes, and a fair percentage of them end up in the slaughter chain abroad – as do horses from disciplines other than racing. It is for this reason that Ireland now has a system of horse passports the same as the UK, whereby a horse’s treatment regime is fully documented so that harmful medicines do not enter human nutrition via horsemeat.   

There is ongoing concern and controversy over the existence of a live export trade to England and Europe.[3] It is alleged that the horses are exported under the guise of “riding horses” because of Ireland's policy against the trade, although it is not actually illegal.[4] In 2002 The Irish Times ran reports proving its existence – in February it recorded that "the Central Statistics Office confirms the trade exists, with €1.8 million worth of horse exports for slaughter registered with the Revenue in the 10 months up to October 2002". In March the paper quoted from a European report detailing “the findings of animal welfare inspections in France last June [which] refers to Irish horses being transported through the country en route to the abattoir ….”[5]  

The real concern over whether the trade does still exist or even the size of it is the possible cruelty and welfare breaches inherent to all forms of live export. 

[1] Agricultural Data on FAOSTAT  (Food and Agriculture Organization of the US Statistics)

[2] Weatherby’s Statistics .

[3] Irish Horse Welfare Trust

[4] Government of Ireland, Joint Committee on Agriculture discussion June 2003.

[5] The Irish Times archive



(Compiled Sept 2006)


The Japanese are major consumers of horsemeat and often eat it raw, in which form it is called sakura (cherry blossom) because of its very pink colour. It may be served as sashimi - thin slices dipped in soy sauce, or as basashi with ginger and onion added. Horsemeat is also used for yakiniku, a type of barbecue, or served wrapped in a shiso leaf. Basashi is found all over Japan but Kumamoto and Matsumoto are particularly famous for the delicacy. There is also a basashi-flavoured ice cream.[1]

Japan’s total consumption of horsemeat in 2004 was 15,520 tonnes, representing the slaughter of more than 50,000 horses. Trade figures show that 8,840 tonnes were imported, meaning 6,680 tonnes were processed domestically.[2] It was a Japanese slaughterhouse where the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand met his end. Adored by thousands when racing, he was disposed of because of his failure at stud in the U.S. and later Japan.

82% of Japan’s imported horsemeat comes from Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Other suppliers include Australia and the U.S. In reference to the recent (Sept 2006) vote by the House of Representatives to outlaw the slaughter of horses in America for human consumption, the Japanese agriculture ministry said that if the bill passes the Senate, it would have little impact on Japan – only 735 of the total 8,800 tonnes of horsemeat imported last year were from the U.S.[3]

[1] Wikipedia article on horse meat
[2] Agricultural Data on FAOSTAT
[3] House Votes to Ban Horse Slaughter Sept 2006



(Compiled July 2006)


New Zealand exports a variable quantity of horse meat for human consumption overseas. There is also a very small domestic market. The first export shipment was just a few tonnes in 1984. That quantity gradually rose to 1244 tonnes (~4000 horses) in 1993, after which it slowly fell again, paralleling the Australian situation. In 2004 about 500 tonnes were exported.[1]


The horses slaughtered are ex-racehorses, also ex-sport and farm horses and, at times, Kaimanawa feral horses.[2] The slaughterhouses are Belgian-owned. They are Clover Export Ltd at Gore in the South Island, and Alpine Export Ltd at Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, North Island. Meramist Pty Ltd, proprietors of Caboolture horse meat abattoir in Queensland, Australia, acquired Clover Export Ltd in 1999. They also own adjacent land where a buffer quantity of horses can be kept, ensuring a constant supply so that the plant can operate at optimum level at all times.[3] Alpine Export Ltd processes horse meat under the direction of Chevideco, which also owns the Dallas Crown Inc slaughterhouse in Texas, USA.[4]



[1] Agricultural Data on FAOSTAT

[2] NZ Food Safety Authority (personal communication)

[3] CAFCA.

[4] Chevideco



Compiled August 2006

It is not illegal to eat horsemeat in the UK but to most British people it is a taboo food. However, thousands of horses are slaughtered annually for human consumption overseas at three abattoirs in England: Potters Abattoir near Bristol; Cheshire Equine Services, Nantwich; and RE Williams & Son, Weobley, Herefordshire.

FAOSTAT figures reveal the first export of 1606 tonnes of UK horsemeat to Europe was in 1963. After that it steadily increased most years to a peak in 1982 of 7,781 tonnes representing the slaughter of 26,000 horses.[1] By 1997, the UK trade figures for "Meat of horses, asses, mules, hinnies: fresh, chilled, frozen" showed that 2,515 tonnes were exported, mostly to France. In 2000 it was 2857 tonnes (9,500 horses) mainly to France but some to Belgium. After that the quantity declined to 1,576 tonnes exported in 2004.[2] Currently DEFRA estimates that between 6,000 and 10,000 horses are being killed annually for consumption abroad.[3] 

A spokesperson for Potters Abattoir estimated that 80% of the horses they receive are Thoroughbreds, 10% of which come directly from the racing and breeding sector, some after a varying period of retirement.[4] A further percentage comes from the 4000 or so Thoroughbreds bred in the UK every year with insufficient ability to be worth racing or breeding from,[5] which take a circuitous route to slaughter via a sports and eventing career first. Still others would be the never raced or retired but still sound Thoroughbreds of suitable type and temperament sold on to other disciplines and which in time also take the slaughter road.  The abattoirs pay as much as ₤650 for a large Thoroughbred,[5] an attractive proposition to owners faced with the major expense of disposal by other means, anything from £150 for collection and processing by a renderer to £750 or more for home euthanasia and cremation.[4]

Although it is not actually illegal, there is no live export of horses from the UK specifically for slaughter.[3] The reason is that a mandatory minimum value above that which horse slaughterers would pay is placed on any horse exported abroad, though UK horses of higher value are regularly exported for competition and breeding purposes and no doubt end up joining the slaughter trail in Europe. 

Additionally, it became compulsory in 2005 for all equidae in the UK to have a passport detailing any medications to ensure that certain drugs do not enter human nutrition through horsemeat. No horse, pony, donkey or mule can be moved out of the UK without one. Since March 2006, horses sent to abattoirs in England had to have a passport before they could be slaughtered. This caused a substantial drop in business, though probably not in number of horse deaths, the surplus being disposed of in other ways.[5]   

Faced with the continuing problem of what to do with the unwanted horse, major organisations like the ILPH and RSPCA agree that the horse slaughter industry provides an effective and humane disposal service, provided there is stringent adherence to welfare guidelines. In the words of one abattoir owner: “The level of welfare abuse of horses in the UK is but a shadow of that which would occur should an abattoir trade not exist.”[4]   


[1] Agricultural Data on FAOSTAT

[2] uktradeinfo website, Comcode 02050020

[3] Personal communication Customer Contact Unit, DEFRA, UK.

[4] Personal communication Stephen Potter, Lawrence J Potter (SW) Ltd, Bristol.

[5] “What happens to …unwanted horses?” The First Post, 31 July 2006



Contributed by Connie


Unwanted — the overarching word associated with the U.S. horse slaughter industry. That is, unwanted horses are sent to slaughter in droves, yet horse slaughter itself is unwanted by the majority of Americans who know about it. Nowhere else is the fight to ban horse slaughter for human consumption so fierce yet nowhere else are there so many horses processed as horsemeat — 90,000 to 100,000 horses a year ..... More >


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