Horse passports: up to 7,000 unauthorised documents issued
The BBC has learned that up to 7,000 unauthorised horse passports have been in circulation in the UK since 2008.
The documents were issued by an equine society after the government had withdrawn its right to grant passports, sources have said.
It has led to confusion at abattoirs when some of the animals were sent for slaughter.
Campaigners say it highlights the fact that the passport system is chaotic and subject to widespread abuse.
The horse passport system was introduced in 2005 in response to an EU directive aimed at ensuring animals destined for the food chain were drug-free.
In 2009, it was strengthened by the addition of a requirement that all foals should be micro-chipped as an additional safety measure.
According to a list compiled by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), about 75 equine organisations can issue horse passports - but experts say the quality of these documents varies considerably.
Some organisations have robust systems and issue documents with holograms making them difficult to forge.
One organisation, the Spotted Horse and Pony Society, had their right to issue passports withdrawn by Defra in 2008, according to media reports.
But sources in the industry confirmed to the BBC that several thousand passports in the society's name were issued after it lost the right to authorise these documents.
"People have been panicking about it since 2008," the industry source said.
Another person familiar with the case said that abattoirs were often uncertain about these passports and sought clarification when they were presented with horses for slaughter.
The chief officer of West Yorkshire Trading Standards confirmed that there had been a police investigation into the matter.
"I recall that there was an investigation launched in the Bradford area," said Graham Hebblethwaite, "but I don't think it went to court. It was to do with alleged horse passport fraud." he said.
"It didn't go to court on the basis that they couldn't get sufficient evidence of the passport system operating properly - they couldn't prove it was false," Mr Hebblethwaite said.
A spokesperson for West Yorkshire police would not confirm whether there had been an investigation or not, and would only say that there was no current, active one.
A Defra spokesperson told BBC News: "The Spotted Horse and Pony Society had their approval to issue passports withdrawn by Defra in 2008.
"After checks were carried out, the society was found not to be meeting the minimum standards required for operational efficiency."
The society in question is now defunct but welfare campaigners said that the case highlights the chaotic nature of the horse passport system.
"We do know there is widespread abuse of the passport system," says Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare.
"We think the system is bonkers - it needs changing, it needs vast improvement."
Some of the passport-issuing organisations (PIOs) produce flimsy credentials that are easy to tamper with, campaigners claim.
If an owner says that a passport has been lost, a duplicate is issued and the horse is supposed to be kept out of the food chain. But Mr Owers said this is being abused.
"A horse could have a passport that a vet signs and details medication on, but it could also have a duplicate that's clean - and when they go to the abattoir, that's the one they take," he said.
The campaigners cited a case in which one Irish horse was issued with three passports within three months by the same passport-issuing society.
Defra told BBC News that around 1.3 million passports have been issued in the UK with more than 64,000 being issued in 2011.
They say there is a clear process for assessing organisations before they are approved to issue passports. PIOs may be inspected to make sure they are fulfilling requirements and the numbers of inspections is set to rise.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Farming Minister David Heath acknowledged there were problems with the system.
"I, as I've looked at this situation, have become more and more convinced that the horse passport system introduced by the EU and implemented by the previous government in this country is actually not as effective as it should be a by a long way," the minister said.
A Defra spokesman said that the rules and responsibilities were clear.
"All horses must hold a passport showing details of its identity and the veterinary medicines it has received, including bute. The owner is legally responsible for making sure this happens.
"It's illegal to obtain and use a fraudulent passport that omits the horse's history. Doing so could lead to a fine of up to £5,000."
Across the equine industry, though, there are growing calls for reform.
"It has been well recognised over the last year that not all these passport-issuing bodies are operating to the same standard," said Dr Tim Morris, vice chair of the British Horse Industry Confederation.
"If the passport system is not robust, that makes it easy to provide a duplicate passport and opens up the possibility of fraud."
At one time, the information from all these different bodies was co-ordinated in a national equine database, but this was closed in September 2012 when Defra said they would no longer fund it.
According to Mr Owers the abolition of the database has made the situation more chaotic.
"This has made things more difficult but there were duplicate passports and widespread abuse of the system even when the national equine database was around," he said.
"Going forward it is going to make it far easier to produce false passports."
The major worry with such deceptions is that horses that have been treated with phenylbutazone - or "bute" - could enter the food chain.
The government today announced that in tests carried out since the start of this month, eight positives for bute were detected from 206 test samples. Efforts are being made to trace six of the carcasses that may have entered the food chain after they were exported to France.
In an announcement that drew little attention on Monday, the Food Standards Agency announced that in future, horse meat would be held in the UK until tests for bute came back clear.
Campaigners have also raised concerns about horses from Ireland travelling into the UK and France without any supervision whatsoever. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that up to 70,000 animals could have disappeared from Ireland over the past three years.
"We do know that there is a broader, very murky trade in low-value equines," says Mr Owers.
"These are coming in and out of Ireland into the UK and France. The reason for this trade is unclear, we do know it relates in part to parallel criminal activity. Some of these animals would end up in the food chain," he said.
Problems with horse passports have also been reported in the Netherlands where several arrests were made in connection to fraudulent use of documents at abattoirs late last year.
The drug that worries experts the most is bute. This painkiller is widely used by horse owners but it is prohibited for human use as it has been associated with a rare but fatal illness called aplastic anaemia.
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