The Department of Agriculture is to conduct a root and branch review of horse welfare and traceability rules in the aftermath of alleged violations at the State’s only licensed horse slaughter facility.

The Department’s secretary general Brendan Gleeson suggested that footage of the facility which aired as part of an RTÉ Investigates programme shows that the horsemeat traceability system can be circumvented.

When speaking before the Oireachtas agriculture committee on Wednesday, the official stated that Ireland maintains an “excellent” food safety system and record across all animal species.

“But it is clear that in the case of horses, despite, I think, compliance with EU rules and the EU framework, that we have a system capable of circumvention if people are determined to do it,” he told committee.

Welfare issues

“And there is nothing about this that doesn’t require a root and branch review, I think. We are certainly convinced that that needs to be done.

“There are welfare issues here, there are traceability issues and people [already] have an obligation to register horses, to have a passport, to microchip them, that is a legal obligation that people have.

“There may be people who do not comply with those requirements, but what is critically important is that where there are instances of non-compliance, those horses cannot get into the food chain,” he said.

Gleeson’s comments came in response to a question from committee chair Jackie Cahill TD, who contrasted the enforcement of cattle tagging rules with those in play for microchipping horses.

“In bovine, there is 100% compliance. If you haven’t an animal tagged within 21 days, you get a fairly stiff letter from the Department and it’s working exceptionally well,” Cahill said.

Horse slaughter figures fall from 2012 peak

Figures cited by Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue in response to a question put by Brian Stanley TD show that horse slaughter and seizure figures have abated from their peaks after the economic downturn.

Some 24,000 horses were sent for slaughter in 2012, a figure which dropped to just 2,000 last year.

The number of abandoned horses being seized by local authorities has also reduced significantly from 5,000 in 2014 to fewer than 500 annually in recent years. The minister added that the the financial crisis and economic downturn from 2008 onwards led to three consequences for the horse population.

These were a significant reduction in the output from the equine breeding sector, such that fewer mares were bred and hence fewer foals were born, a large increase in unwanted horses and a significant decrease in the value of horses, he said.