'Shambolic' horse passport system opens door to fraud - NFU

THE ‘shambolic’ horse passport system is potentially allowing horses dumped on British farmland to enter the food chain illegally, according to the NFU.

The NFU has published a survey showing around 3,000 of its members have been affected by fly-grazing in recent years. More than a third of respondents, 38 per cent, said they had been targeted more than once, while respondents listed ‘a number of intimidation tactics’ when they challenged horse owners, including threats of violence and arson, according to the NFU.

But the union is also highlighting the related issue of horse passports against the backdrop of the horse meat scandal.

A former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, John Young, told the Sunday times he helped draft a letter to Defra in April 2011 warning the Government that its passport scheme was not working. The scheme was set up to stop meat containing the drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, getting into the food chain.

But Mr Young said the system was a ‘complete mess’. “Defra gave nearly 80 organisations the authority to produce passports and some of them are little better than children could produce,” he said. .

NFU vice president Adam Quinney said the Horse Passport Regulations (2009) needed to be changed to improve the traceability of horses.

He said: “The large numbers of horses being dumped on farmland must be going somewhere when their owners collect them, and it is certainly possible that a lot of them are being moved across borders and into abattoirs using forged passports.

“The passport system has been described as shambolic, and clearly it is not effective. The Government must make the changes necessary to ensure that the system meets the need for traceability while not impeding the efforts of farmers who need to get abandoned horses off their land.”

The NFU has developed an action plan that calls for further law changes to give local authorities and police clear powers to act when private land owners have horses dumped on their land and support from the insurance industry.

The survey revealed that fly-grazing was most widespread in the North East, followed by East Anglia, South East and South West and was also a ‘serious problem’ in South Wales.

Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has asked Food Standards Agency chief executive Catherine Brown and Defra officials to look into the allegations that information about horse passports had not been investigated.

A Defra spokesperson said: “From those investigations, it’s clear that Defra and the FSA have taken action on the issue of potential falsifying of horse passports, including individual enforcement action when information has been passed to us.

“In January 2012 Defra and the FSA increased checks on horse passports, meaning every horse was checked twice, and from last week no horse can enter the food chain until it is confirmed to be free of bute.”

She insisted the issues surrounding falsified horse passports were ‘unrelated to the fact that horse meat has been fraudulently passed off as beef in a number of products’.

Mark Bowen, from the University of Nottingham and British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), said the horse passport legislation was improved in 2009 by the requirement for horses to be permanently identified by a microchip inserted into the neck.

But he said: “Although the horse passport system has improved considerably since 2004, some opportunities to defraud the system remain; BEVA are keen to work with DEFRA to remove such loopholes.”

He said a number of scenarios could explain how bute has been found by the FSA in horses slaughtered for human consumption. These may include deliberate fraud, lack of compliance with the regulations by owners or vets or contamination of feeds or buckets resulting in accidental intake of the drug by horses.

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