Equine passports were supposed to ensure that no horse signed out of the food chain entered it again. But last year’s horse meat scandal — and the discovery of bute in “beef” products — exposed the flaws in that system.

The European Union now wants the passport system tightened up. It has told member states that they must introduce compulsory equine databases later this year.

In the UK, those involved with the successor to the National Equine Database (NED) — the second such database to fail in Britain, folding in 2012 after Defra withdrew funding — are adamant that this new model will only work if every single equine in the UK is microchipped.

“It will bring much-needed integrity to the system — and is the key to making any new EU laws on identification enforceable,” said Jan Rogers of the British Equestrian Federation (BEF).

Thousands of horses unregistered

Just before Christmas, members of the Equine Sector Council — which includes leading vets, industry figures and welfare agencies — raised the issue with Defra minister Lord de Mauley.

A Defra spokesman confirmed they have asked Brussels to include measures in the legislation to allow member states to adopt retrospective microchipping, should they wish to.

Under EU regulations, all equines foaled since 2009 and older horses registered for the first time must be chipped. Racehorses and those newly registered with the FEI and British Showjumping (BS) must also be chipped.

“But this leaves a huge percentage of the horse population unregistered,” said British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) chief executive David Mountford.

Mr Mountford told H&H that he also wants to see a controlled supply of microchips, with “a centralised record of which batch has gone where”.

Last year, H&H revealed that DIY microchips were widely available to buy online. In the UK, only a vet may legally chip a horse.

Effective regulation

H&H asked its reader panel if they supported retrospective microchipping . More than 50 people responded, with the majority saying they did. But many pointed out that, unless the measure was enforced, it would be as toothless as current passport and microchipping legislation.

“If you can’t police the current scheme effectively, there is little point in trying to extend it,” said H&H reader Lucy Moreton. “Of the thousands of animals fly-grazing in the UK, I very much doubt many are microchipped.”

Current legislation does “have pretty low credibility”, said Roly Owers of World Horse Welfare.

“You can have the best regulation in the world, but if it’s not enforced then it is as good as useless,” he pointed out.

Currently, owners who fail to passport and microchip their animals have to be pursued through the courts, which is costly and long-winded. But Defra is exploring whether they could be served with on-the-spot fines instead, by as-yet unidentified enforcers.

Reducing costs

Vets charge an average of £20-30 to chip a horse, plus call-out fee. Both Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and some large riding schools contacted by H&H said that, while they backed retrospective microchipping, they had concerns about the cost.

“Many of our groups own a number of horses and ponies,” said RDA chief executive Ed Bracher. “Ideally ,we’d like to see some support made available to help us and other equine charities comply.”

Martine Dawlings of Trent Park Equestrian Centre in north London — which has 130 horses — asked if competent people could be trained up to do the microchipping, to reduce costs.

Jan Rogers of the BEF, who is closely involved with the new database, agreed that help must be made available.

“As an industry, we need to come up with some creative solutions as to how this can be made affordable for horse owners,” she told H&H.

Members of the Equine Sector Council also suggest a two-year grace period, to allow people time to get their horses chipped and make the new rules more palatable.

This is essential, say those involved with the new regulations, to ensure a a workable — and watertight — system.

“A year after the horse meat revelations, we are keen to keep the pressure on — to ensure that some good comes out of the scandal,” said Roly Owers.

This story originally appeared in H&H in 16 January 2014 issue.