The Department of Agriculture is considering the introduction of a humane slaughtering scheme for horses to deal with the oversupply of horses that has arisen because of the horse meat crisis, Simon Coveney told an Oireachtas committee today.
The Minister for Agriculture said there was “dramatic reduction” in the number of horses being slaughtered since the controversy began in January and there was potentially a welfare issue for horses that were worthless but could not go into the food chain because they had received the veterinary drug bute. Procedures were not tightly enforced before the scandal and it was believed that horses were slaughtered without the necessary checks.
Mr Coveney told the Oireachtas Committtee on Agriculture that some 24,000 horses were slaughtered in factories last year while just 6,500 have been slaughtered this year. “We have really tightened up the rules since the horse meat scandal which has resulted in a reduction of the number of factories slaughtering horses and also a very, very tight system now in terms of micro-chipping, identification and passports and so on,” Mr Coveney said.
Fine Gael TD Pat Deering asked if Mr Coveney was considering an amnesty for horses that were not eligible for slaughtering. He said large number of horses would be under severe pressure this winter because their owners may not have feed for them. But Mr Coveney said it was "out of the question" that he would allow horses without appropriation identification to be slaughtered for human consumption.
“We are not going to allow a single kilo of horse meat into the food chain unless it has been rigorously tested,” he said. “I’m not going to reward anybody for having a large number of horses that aren’t micro-chipped. But having said that, if people have horses at the moment that they can’t feed and they have no outlet and no market for those horses and there’s likely to be a welfare problem as a result of that, well, then we have to act on that and we will,” he said. “Whether they need to be slaughtered humanely, or whether they need some other appropriate treatment, well obviously we’ll look at that”.
He also encouraged people to contact the Department of Agriculture’s welfare help line if they could not afford to feed their animals. “Don’t do something crazy like shoot them in the yard. Give us a call and we will help you deal with that problem,” he said.
Mr Coveney was speaking to the committee during a pre-Budget briefing. He said the Department of Finance had asked the Department of Agriculture for savings of about € 54 million, € 28 million of which would have to come from current expenditure. "Obviously right up until Budget day we will be trying to change those figures where possible," he said.
Mr Coveney also noted that while the exchequer figures released today showed an under-spend in the Department of Agriculture, most of this money would be spent by the end of the year.
“We’re anticipating at the moment that, if there’s an under-spend at the end of the year, that could be a figure of ...at most € 10 million, mainly on the capital side and that will be money that we will carry over to next year if we can. But given the fact that we have a total expenditure of well over € 1.2 billion, you’re talking about a very small percentage.”
Several committee members raised concerns about the plight of suckler farmers who received a significant cut to their incomes with the demise of the suckler cow welfare scheme.
Fianna Fáil deputy Éamon Ó Cuív said other schemes should be pared back if necessary, in order to support the suckler herd. Sinn Féin's Martin Ferris said the cuts to suckler farmers had "devastating consequences" and the knock-on effects would be damaging for the entire sector if people left suckler farming.
Mr Coveney also defended the department's actions in clawing back payments from farmers who had over-claimed for EU schemes. The over-claiming only became apparent following introduction of a more accurate mapping system across Europe. "This is public money and if we don't claw it back, the European Commission will claw it back and they will claw it back with penalties," he said.