A new Europe-wide equine database is to be introduced by 2016 to try and prevent a repeat of last year’s horsemeat scandal.

The European Union (EU) Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health announced the changes earlier this month (12 September), which means that every foal will have to be issued with a single passport and unique identification number before its first birthday.

Under the new regulations all horses born after 1 July 2009 will have to be microchipped so their records can be checked and updated and serve as a passport.

It will be compulsory for this information to be stored on a centralised database for all EU member states.

The regulation will apply from 1 January 2016. However, EU countries that do not already have a centralised database will have until 1 July 2016 to put one in place.

Currently 25 out of the 28 member states have a database, but the UK does not — following the closure of the National Equine Database in 2012 due to lack of government funding.

Last year’s horsemeat scandal highlighted the failure of current regulations, leading to the industry calling for a review of the “broken passport system”.

EU commissioner in charge of health Tonio Borg said: “As promised, this is another lesson drawn from last year’s horsemeat fraud: the rules endorsed by the member states will strengthen the horse passport system in place.

“I believe that closer co-operation will enhance the safeguards which prevent non-food quality horsemeat ending up on our plates.”

Equine charities welcomed the move, having been campaigning for tougher regulations to improve horse welfare (news, 16 January).

“Horses in the UK will especially benefit from these tougher laws as the UK’s system of equine identification could arguably be said to be one of the most complex, and abused, systems in Europe,” said World Horse Welfare’s Roly Owers.

Currently there are more than 75 passport issuing organisations, yet no central database in the UK.

“We have always been clear that a central database is a fundamental element in building a system that is more workable and enforceable, which can better protect our horses,” Mr Owers added.

Potential pitfalls

Although this move has been seen as a huge step forward, concerns have been raised as to whether these new rules can be effectively introduced and policed.

Two previous equine databases have already failed in the UK.

In 2001 the British Equine Database — which recorded data for sport horse breeding — closed after eight years when British Showjumping withdrew from the scheme.

The National Equine Database (NED) was launched in 2008 but folded in 2012 after Defra withdrew funding saying that it was “not effective”, a measure that was slammed by vets and welfare groups (news, 23 August 2012).

Industry professionals are also worried whether the new measures can be practically introduced.

H&H veterinary consultant Karen Coumbe said: “As an equine vet in practice, I still come across horses and ponies with no passports, as well as those with multiple passports and variable numbers of microchips, some of which are registered and some not.

“The current situation is a mess and I totally agree that every effort needs to be made to improve this. Unfortunately, realistically it is going to be an enormous challenge to do so.”

Equine charities have also warned that the new rules will only work if they can be enforced.

“The new regulations will help, but they alone will not solve the problem. A law is only effective if it is enforced, and this is especially true for identification,” said the Horse Trust’s Jeanette Allen, who is also a member of the Equine Sector Council, which has been campaigning for the tightening of regulations for years.

“The government must support better enforcement, which has been a low priority.”

The root of the problem

An independent government report into the horsemeat scandal by Professor Chris Elliott was published earlier this month (4 September) and stated that “urgent and comprehensive changes” to the way the UK food system is policed are needed to “protect consumers from serious organised crime”.

However, there is a fear that appropriate funds have not been allocated in order to achieve this.

“A lot will depend on what happens at the next election,” a source close to the enquiry told H&H.

“There is no money available so any action that the government takes will have to be paid for by taking money from another project.

“There is an appetite to deal with it but the government is hamstrung as they don’t have the money to pay for it.”

There is also concern from the industry that while supermarkets continue to drive down prices, due to consumer demand, food fraud is more likely to happen.

Much of the meat that was found to be contaminated during last year’s scandal was in low cost “value” products. One of the contaminated ready meal lasagnes cost just £1.60.

Low priced beef products are still available from all major supermarkets. Iceland sells eight British beef burgers for £1.50 while Asda’s cheapest 300g lasagne is 71p.

“There is no sign of the price war ending,” the source told H&H. “With Tesco’s recent drop in profits it is looking to make more and more price promises.

“Ultimately in order to achieve this they will have to take a hit on their margin or ask suppliers to pick up the tab.

“With margins being squeezed throughout the supply chain the temptation to cut corners is always going to be there.”

This news story was first published in H&H magazine on 25 September 2014