Tens of thousands of horses are being subjected to long-haul flights, confined in crates with no food or water, to meet demand for horsemeat in Japan.
Since 2013, about 40,000 live horses have been flown to Japan from airports in western Canada. Under Canadian regulations, the journey can stretch up to 28 hours, during which the animals are allowed to go without food, water or rest.
The multimillion-pound global trade in fresh horsemeat to Japan is dominated by Canada and France. The little-known sector has burst into public view in Canada in recent years, fuelled by footage captured by campaigners of the near-weekly flights.
The footage prompted one vet, Judith Samson-French, to travel to the Calgary airport three times to see for herself what was happening. “As a veterinarian, I did not like what I saw,” she said. “These horses have not been trained nor conditioned for this kind of transport.”
She watched as the horses were loaded, in groups of three or four, into wooden crates that leave just the top of the animal visible. “You hear them in the crates,” said Samson-French. “There’s a lot of kicking going on there.”
At times, the horses appeared to be too tall to comfortably fit into the crates, she said. “These are big horses,” she added. “It’s absolutely impossible for a horse to lay down in those crates.”
She worried that the crating of horses, combined with the animals’ high centre of gravity, could prove dangerous on a plane.
Once they land in Japan, the horses are taken to a government quarantine facility for 10 days. From there, they are moved to feedlots to be fattened up for up to a year before being slaughtered to meet demand for popular delicacies such as basashi, a dish of raw, thinly sliced pieces of horsemeat dipped in soy sauce and served with ginger.
Between 25% and 40% of Japan’s horsemeat comes from imported animals, often in an attempt to save on the high cost of feeding horses, according to research carried out by the consultancy Williams & Marshall Strategy. In 2019 Canada provided 71% of the live horse imports to Japan, in statistics that exclude purebred horses for breeding, followed by France at 21%.
Canadian government figures show exports to Japan of live horses for slaughter began picking up in 2000 with the sale of 96 animals, worth C$231,000. A year later, the value of these exports had risen more than fivefold; by 2018 it was worth more than C$20m (£11.5m).
Between 2013 and 2020, the value of exports consistently topped C$10m. After reaching a high of 7,111 horses in 2014, exports dropped steadily with 1,606 exported in 2020.
France appears to have entered the market relatively recently, sending 80 live horses to Japan for slaughter in 2017. By 2019 this figure had swelled to 959.
Stéphanie Ghislain, of the Eurogroup for Animals, said: “Around 2016 or 2017, the Japanese started to come to France to investigate where they could buy horses.”. Much of the trade has been centred in the north-western region of Brittany, with the animals transported from France to Japan by plane, she added.
While France’s agriculture ministry described the transport of live animals as a “major concern”, it said in a statement that the “increase in Japanese demand for French horses is a sign of the excellence of our industry”.
For live exports transported by plane, the ministry said checks are organised by local authorities at departure airports. EU transport standards have been set out to avoid overcrowding or risk of injury, it added. “The natural movements of the animals should not be hindered and access for care needs to be available.”
Eurogroup for Animals, an animal welfare organisation, has said that there are not, as yet, any harmonised standards on vehicles used for equine transport.
In Canada, protesters from groups such as the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition have for years demonstrated against the flights, usually of 90 to 110 horses and departing early in the morning. The campaigners want a ban on the export of live horses for slaughter but also on the slaughter in Canada of horses for human consumption.
“It’s inhumane,” said Sinikka Crosland of the non-profit organisation. “Those crates are the size of a single conventional horse stall – what people would normally keep one horse in – and they’re putting up to three or four horses into these crates.”
Access to information requests filed by the organisation reveal some of the issues encountered during transport. In 2014, a horse described by a handler as “agitated upon loading” kicked through its crate and left a large hole in the aircraft fuselage. After the plane made an emergency landing in Anchorage, Alaska, it was discovered that the horse had died onboard.
Last year, five horses fell during a flight, including one that died. “It seems like [sic] dead one laid down right after departure and has been doing so all the way to Japan, so we assume it got sick before or during the loading process,” the government correspondence noted. The four others were able to stand for unloading, though they “did not show physical strength”, the document added.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said its agents monitor the loading of horses for each air shipment to “verify that the horses are fit and will be transported humanely”. It said it was aware of five deaths related to air shipments to Japan since 2013.
Most of the journeys from Canada to Japan are completed in about 22 hours, it added, with the animals off-loaded immediately to a quarantine station adjacent to the airport.
The 28-hour time limit on journeys was introduced in February 2020, with the industry given two years to transition from the previous limit of 36 hours.
Transporters and exporters are required to use crates that allow horses to stand in their “preferred position” when calm. “This requirement does not prohibit incidental contact with netting if a horse rears its head,” the agency added.
Exporters are required to prevent overcrowding and must ensure the animals placed together in crates are “compatible”. Groups of four horses may be shipped together, it said, provided there is a minimum of 7 sq metres of available floor space.
Speaking anonymously, a Canadian company that supplies live horses for export to Japan said in his experience horses usually ranged in age from one to three years old and were always accompanied on flights by a groom who monitored their health and welfare.
“There is great government oversight during the entire process. Internal and external vets are also involved. We are constantly under the microscope,” said the source. “Animal welfare is the highest priority.”
Sign up for the Animals farmed monthly update to get a roundup of the best farming and food stories across the world and keep up with our investigations. You can send us your stories and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org