The monitoring and tracking of horse numbers in Britain and Ireland is so lax that tens of thousands of animals may have been exported illegally and entered the food chain, experts warn.
More than 1,100 racehorses were slaughtered in abattoirs in Britain in 2011, raising the risk that unscrupulous meat trade middlemen have diverted thoroughbreds for human consumption.
Officials at Aintree racecourse, home of the Grand National, yesterday denied that fatally injured horses could have entered the food chain after it emerged that the owner of a Yorkshire abattoir, which was closed down this week on suspicion of supplying horse meat to a Welsh processing plant, has a contract to remove destroyed animals from the course. There is no evidence that the horses collected from Aintree entered the food chain.
Up to 7,000 unauthorised horse passports have been in circulation since 2008 after documents continued to be issued in the name of The Spotted Horse and Pony Organisation despite it having its licence withdrawn. About 75 organisations are authorised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to grant the passports, which critics say makes the system chaotic and vulnerable to fraud.
Animal welfare campaigners said up to 70,000 horses have been exported from the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, some of them with records showing they are unfit for human consumption, which have been wiped clean with falsified documents.
Leading British public health expert, Professor Hugh Pennington, said ministers were wrong to state that horse meat poses no risk to human health. He said the potential involvement of poorly run abattoirs in supplying illegal horse meat raised the danger of contamination by bacteria such as salmonella in processed food. "There are issues at the bottom end of the market with meat going under the radar, like horse meat has been doing," he said.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) yesterday sought to quell concern about the presence of a veterinary drug - phenylbutazone, or "bute" - in horse meat that may have entered the food chain. It had revealed "bute" had been found in eight out of 206 carcasses tested in a seven-day period this month.
But officials stressed an individual would need to eat several hundred horse meat burgers in a single day to obtain a harmful dose of bute.
The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it believed horses in Ireland worth as little as £10 (because they have been treated with veterinary drugs such as bute) were being sold to slaughterhouses for up to £400 by criminals falsifying horse passports. The charity's research indicates up to 70,000 horses could no longer be traced in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland since 2010, many of them racehorses.
There is alleged overproduction of racehorses in Britain, leading to surplus animals being slaughtered. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) said 1,127 thoroughbreds were killed in abattoirs in 2011; in 2010 the number was 499.
It is legal for racehorses to enter the food chain as long as they have not been treated with medicines, such as bute. But the BHA said the use of legitimate veterinary drugs in racehorses means virtually all are excluded from the food chain.
Dean Stansall, horse racing consultant for Animal Aid, said: "We have seen in recent days that the system once they reach the slaughterhouse is in a mess - there can be no guarantee that some of these animals are not entering the food chain."
The BHA said it was subject to some of the tightest regulation in any equine sport and an abattoir often represented the most humane way to end an animal's life. It said the regulation and operation of slaughterhouses was a matter for the FSA.