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Canadian Equine ID

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CattleCo

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The ID situation affects all livestock industries. The Equine Industry is a billion dollar+ deal. We need to be just as activity in Equine ID as Cattle ID. As for Horse Slaughter......we must keep these facilities open in the US. REASON: If we outlaw this industry or the transportation of horses across certain states for slaughter we will have horses on trucks for a very long time going to slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada. That folks is inhumane!!!!!!!! Remember, if these "horse huggers" get their way on this issue PETA is soon to follow on our livehood the "Food Animal Industry"! We all have a stake in the Horse Issues in this country and Canada! IT WILL AFFECT THE BEEF CATTLE INDUSTRY DOWN THE ROAD!!!


Can I See Some Identification?
The Proposed National Equine ID Program


If the latest scheme from Equine Canada (EC) and Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada comes to pass, your horse might have to be registered in a national database in order to go to a show or even graze in your field. Here’s an admittedly opinionated look at the situation.

By Karen Briggs


Last night on the news there was another item about "identity theft", an increasingly scary crime in which computer-savvy thieves lift your personal financial or medical information from supposedly-secure computer databases and use it for their own devices. At a time when concerns about privacy are multiplying, it seems odd that there’s a push for a national program to identify every horse in Canada and verify its whereabouts. But there it is, large as life and twice as ugly: a proposed National Identification Plan for horses which — thanks to a lack of publicity on the part of its proposed administrator, Equine Canada — might have escaped your attention till now.

Nothing has been legislated yet, but the idea is to assign every equine in Canada a Unique Equine Lifetime Number (UELN), which would differentiate one equine from all others over its lifetime and assist officials in tracking their movements. Also included in the plan is the registration of all farm properties which house horses and other types of livestock, either permanently or transiently (ie. showgrounds or racetracks). This program would supercede any other form of registration or identification you might currently have for your horse, be it breed registration papers, an EC passport, or a brand, freezemark, or tattoo. And more than likely, the cost would be borne by you, the horse owner.

What’s the rationale behind this movement? There are several, the merits and logic of which are under hot debate.


1 -- Identification/traceability programs are already in place, or being implemented, for other livestock species such as cattle. In the wake of the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease") scare of 2003, federal officials are keen on improving our tracking methods for animals which might enter the food chain. Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC) has developed a "Farm-Gate-to-Plate by 2008" program for edible livestock species. And horses do, unfortunately, still fit that definition.

2 -- Horses have been identified as a "potential disease transmission vector", on the basis that they are farm-based, highly mobile, and may come into contact with other livestock species. Traceability is being billed as protecting herd health.

3 -- Canada’s western provinces, and several states in the U.S.A., already require proof of ownership papers and a negative Coggins test in order to transport horses over provincial/state borders. Though the rest of Canada has yet to follow suit with such requirements, proponents of Equine ID say the program will standardize these documents and simplify access.

4 -- The example of the American border being closed to the import of live Canadian cattle since the BSE incident demonstrates how easily Canadian horse breeders might lose access to one of their largest markets should U.S. officials extend their paranoia to other species. Traceability and full medical disclosure of horses being sold into the U.S.A. might persuade those officials to maintain an open border for our stock.

5 -- Under current legislation in the European Union, horses entering the human food chain must have a complete record of drugs administered before they are accepted for slaughter, and in some areas may soon be required to sport an i.d. microchip. Canadian horsemeat does find its way to some European countries — though the "zero tolerance" policy for drugs there may soon make our "product" unacceptable, since few of us can claim our horses have spent a lifetime without bute, Lasix, or vaccinations.


Who’s Behind It?

The AAFC is the Canadian federal body which creates policies related to agriculture and food safety, with its subset, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) responsible for enforcing those policies. In a document issued in mid-2003, AAFC outlined a number of initiatives designed to improve domestic and foreign consumer confidence in Canadian agricultural products, including an identification/traceability system for livestock nicknamed "Farm Gate to Plate 2008" (the date for compliance). In essence, it proposed to extend the system currently in place for cattle to other livestock species; sheep and bison have been similarly categorized, with swine next on the list and poultry a question mark.

Depending on who you talk to, the AAFC either approached Equine Canada (our national body for equestrian sport which represents several segments of the horse industry, but not the horse industry as a whole), or Equine Canada approached the AAFC, to ask how horses might fit into this program — a step which pre-supposes that horses ought to be classified with livestock who end up in the food chain, rather than with companion animals such as dogs and cats, as many horsepeople argue. Equine Canada spokespeople will only say they "took the lead" as the horse industry’s representative to AAFC on the livestock identification issue — the first real challenge of its abilities since it morphed from the Canadian Equestrian Federation and expanded its mandate.

Equine Canada appointed itself a charter member in a new agency, funded initially by AAFC, called the Canadian Livestock Identification Agency (CLIA), along with voices from the Canadian Cattle ID Agency and various organizations from the swine, sheep, goat, and elk and deer industries. The objective for the CLIA is to allow these livestock groups to compare notes on the development of identification, movement tracking and traceability programs for their animals, though clearly what works for one species may be unworkable for another. (Cattle, for example, are identified by ear-tags, which are unworkable in horses both for safety and aesthetic reasons ... but more on that issue later.)

In the fall of 2003, Equine Canada formed a Task Force to address the question of how horses could/would/should fit into a national livestock identification scheme, pledging to minimize impacts and costs, and maximize the benefits to the equine industry. 20-odd volunteers were recruited for the Task Force’s working group, representing various industry interests and geographical regions, but heavily slanted towards breeders (a representative from the "sport" end of the horse industry was added very belatedly, just a couple of days before Equine Canada’s public information meeting at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair this past November). The goal of the group? To develop an implementation plan for Horse Identification in Canada, to be presented for final approval at the 2005 Equine Canada convention in Ottawa (in February).

What seems to have been missing from this process is any significant input from those of us in the trenches — the average horse owners who have one to a handful of critters, may go to a handful of shows or trail rides, and often fly under the radar compared to the large breeders who market their horses internationally and the BNR (Big Name Riders) who travel extensively. From the beginning there’s been a feeling of no particular effort being made to get word out to the horse-owning public who’ll ultimately be most affected by this plan. Admittedly, this is hardly the first issue for which our opinion was never solicited — but as the Task Force moves forward with its plans, some horse people are starting to feel somewhat railroaded. We could be forgiven for feeling that the most basic question of all has not been dealt with — the one which asks, "Do we NEED to be part of a national livestock ID program, and is it even appropriate for horses?"

At the November 2004 public meeting, conducted by Equine Canada communications consultant Vel Evans, some members of the task force went so far as to express surprise and hurt that any horse-owning attendee might question the validity of the increasingly elaborate plan being put in place (to the tune of some $300,000 worth of government funding to Equine Canada). As one Task Force member said in a wounded tone, "We’ve worked extremely hard on this!"

There’s no doubt that the volunteer members of the Task Force have expended a great deal of time and energy in brainstorming the justification and the structure of the proposed equine ID program. But there remain a number of very thorny questions, some of which have been filed under Details to be Sorted Out Later, and others which have not been dealt with it at all.



Conscientious Objections

Over and above the central question of whether horses really deserve to be categorized as "livestock" instead of as companion animals, there are the following issues:

1 -- To a large degree the need for an Equine ID program seems to have been structured to facilitate the slaughter industry — a use for horses to which many horse people are categorically opposed. In the United States, a bill to ban horse slaughter entirely is building momentum, and proponents predict it will become law within the next decade and that we will follow suit. Here in Canada, horses destined for the human food chain (as opposed
to pet food) are either shipped live to Japan or as carcasses to Europe. But as previously noted, the EU will soon be requiring proof that horsemeat it accepts is completely drug-free, so our horses will likely be ineligible there.

Microchips, which have been proposed as one method of uniquely identifying Canadian horses, would put another snag in the slaughter process. Because they are foreign bodies, and radioactive ones at that, they would have to be removed from the carcass’s nuchal ligament before the meat could be processed. These microchips are only millimetres long, and could be virtually anywhere along that long neck ligament.

2 -- The case being made for horses being potential disease vectors is Swiss cheese ... at the moment, the only equine disease of any note which is transmissible to humans is rabies, which is not transferred by casual contact and is under very good control thanks to vaccination. Even Foot and Mouth disease, which halted equine travel in the United Kingdom in 2001 for a few months, is not contagious to horses; they are merely mechanical carriers with the ability to spread the organism by kicking around infected soil or manure. So it would take a completely new disease or a bizarre mutation of some kind to make this scenario come true — and since horses aren’t housed in large numbers in tight confinement, as many other livestock species are, their potential for hatching something akin to avian flu is slim. Is it possible we’re succumbing to a case of post-September 11 "climate of fear" paranoia here?

3 -- Just HOW we’d uniquely identify every horse in Canada has not been satisfactorily explained. Ear-tags are out, brands and tattoos can be altered so they’re unreadable, and microchips we’ve already discussed ... and just assigning a horse a UELN doesn’t seem all that different from the EC competition passport program already in place. UELNs would be structured to incorporate current registration numbers for purebred horses, and would be posted on a searchable Web database, for a paperless system ... but it still seems like re-inventing the wheel, not to mention a poor way to ensure one number stays with one horse throughout a lifetime which could include multiple owners. Vel Evans acknowledges, "We need to throw some money at other identification options, possibly DNA analysis or retinal scans. That will probably be an international effort."

4 -- Are we implementing this program mostly on the basis that the United States, growing less rational and ever-more vigilant about "homeland security", might decide to close its borders to Canadian horses? No-one would dare suggest that the U.S. isn’t a major market for our stock, and we would all prefer to be able to compete or race south of the border as we choose — but should we really be instituting Canadian national policy on the basis of what America MIGHT require someday? Apparently some think so — at the Royal Winter Fair public meeting in November, EC president Ed Kendall explained to me that the Equine ID program was necessary because, "The United States owns us."

5 -- Where would an Equine ID program begin and end? Do we incorporate every backyard pony and donkey, or would it be only horses of a certain "level" — and how would we define that? Do we assign a UELN to the wild horses of British Columbia and Alberta, and the ponies on Sable Island? What about mules and zebras?

6 -- Who’s paying for it? An infrastructure such as that being constructed by the EC Task Force needs administrators and a paper trail. It’s almost certain that the cost of acquiring a UELN for each horse will be borne by the consumer, but how much we’re talking about remains to be seen and is one of the topics under discussion by the Task Force.

7 -- One of the most unwieldy parts of the CLIA plan is the eventual registration of all properties housing horses. According to Evans, a 2001 agricultural census showed there is at least one horse on 20 percent of the farms in Canada, but defining the minimum criteria for a location to be "registered" may prove too thorny a task even for the most seasoned bureaucrat. And it poses the question — how much paperwork and money do you have to go through to host a schooling show or buy your first horse, and will that have a negative impact on the industry? That’s not to mention the logistical nightmare that trailering five kilometres down the road to that schooling show might entail someday.


Where Are We Now?

While Equine Canada forges on with single-minded urgency, the truth is that the Canadian government’s stance on horses has not changed: they have no plans to force our industry to comply with any existing or potential legislation at this time. Horses are far from the first priority in the "Farm Gate to Plate 2008" scheme, and although it’s conceivable that this situation could change should some bizarre heretofore-undiscovered communicable disease rear its ugly head, at the moment the Equine ID program is being formulated, at great expense and effort, JUST IN CASE someone should ever require it.
"Admittedly, the benefits of the program will vary depending on what an individual horse owner does with his or her horses," says Evans. "The idea is to centralize and streamline the documentation everyone needs — to simplify our lives, not cause aggravation.

"That horses are not the number one priority (for CLIA) is an advantage, I think," she adds. "It gives us time to consider our options and not bow to knee-jerk reactions."

Though Equine Canada emphasizes that the global economy will eventually insist on complete identification and traceability world-wide, the evidence of this is sketchy at the moment. While the United States is looking at the feasibility of an Equine ID program, "They’re about two years behind us at this point," says Evans, with scant support from the industry. In the UK, attempts at universal passports have become a bureaucratic nightmare of aborted attempts with less than 25% compliance (think "Canadian gun registration program"). And elsewhere, only Ireland and France have managed to successfully institute universal identification numbers, which they use mostly for performance tracking. A few other European nations (the Netherlands and Germany, to name two) do performance tracking through assigned ID numbers only for specified breeds.

The Equine Canada Task Force is currently assembling a business plan and risk assessment for the Equine ID program, which will examine the liability to EC if it should end up being the body to implement and manage the program. This will be presented to the EC councils at the Annual General Meeting in Ottawa this coming February, and the 11 board members will vote on it at that time.
I wish I could tell you that raising your voice will have an impact on the eventual direction of the program. Unfortunately, there are no plans for a referendum of the EC membership or the industry at large regarding this issue. However, "there will be an open meeting at the AGM," says Evans. "I recommend you join SOME organization which has representation to Equine Canada, whether it be the Ontario Horse Trials Association or the Alberta Appaloosa Horse Club. Talk to your representative and make your feelings known. The horse industry should be making sure that the structure put in place three years ago at Equine Canada is put to work for them."
It’s possible, of course, that this plan may become so bogged down in red tape that it eventually grinds to a halt ... but it’s equally possible that we’ll end up having to live with some sort of Equine ID program. Ask yourself — is the insurance policy worth the premium?

- with files from Lee Benson



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For further information on the proposed Equine ID Program, contact:
Equine Canada, 2460 Lancaster Road, Ottawa, Ontario, K1B 4S5.
Phone: 1-866-282-8395 or (613) 248-3433. Fax: (613) 248-3484.
Web site: www.equinecanada.ca



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© The Canadian Horse Journal

Published in the Jan/Feb 05 issue of The Canadian Horse Journal
 
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