Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP Speech to the National Equine Forum
5 March 2013
As someone whose home and social life revolves around horses, it’s a real privilege to be here today speaking to an audience representing so many parts of this important sector.
My family and I enjoy almost every country pursuit involving a horse. My grandfather, father, brother and eldest son were all amateur jockeys. Eventing is my daughter’s passion. And only two summers ago my wife and I took part in the Mongol Derby, a race of more than 1,000 kilometres across the steppes of Mongolia on semi-wild horses. Trying to avoid drinking too much fermented mare’s milk by day and sleeping on the floor of nomadic tribesmen’s tents by night was an experience we’ll never forget or repeat!
As we come together for the 21st annual forum, I should begin by paying tribute to Sir Colin Spedding. While I did not have the pleasure of knowing him personally, I know what a huge contribution he made to this forum as its founding chairman and to British agriculture through his far sighted work on farm animal welfare. He will be missed.
The Equine Sector
The equine sector is diverse and makes a massive contribution to our economy, landscapes and communities. You provide valuable career and employment opportunities. You protect the health and welfare of our animals, including some of our rarest breeds. You enrich people’s lives through the leisure and sporting opportunities enjoyed by the 3.5 m people who ride. The sector has an estimated economic impact of over £7 billion year.
The horse industry is of huge importance to the rural economy and it plays a key role in animal health. These are two of my priorities for Defra, as well as improving the environment and safeguarding plant health.
I believe that Defra’s job is to create the right conditions for rural growth. We need to provide help when it is needed and get out of people’s hair when it is not.
In order to do this we need to work together. The sector itself has already taken a lead. I would like to applaud the work the Equine Health and Welfare Steering Committee is doing on a range of issues, not least the problem of flygrazing. Richard Lancaster has already emphasised the importance of this partnership approach in controlling equine disease.
The most high profile part of the industry is that pertaining to sport.
At London 2012, Team GB put on a magnificent display and came away with 3 Olympic and 5 Paralympic Golds. They won a remarkable 21 medals in total.
You will hear from double Gold medallist Natasha Baker later this afternoon but as someone who was lucky enough to attend some of the events I would like to congratulate our team and all those who worked so hard to showcase British equestrianism at its best.
British success wasn’t just confined to Team GB though, with six British-bred horses competing at the Games, four of them on medal-winning teams.
Looking beyond the triumphs of Greenwich Park, there were 9,647 horse races in 2012. Watching Frankel win his first race over 10 furlongs by seven lengths at York and then ending his career unbeaten at Ascot were two highlights of my racing year.
The British racing sector provides fulltime employment for 18,600 people. With an average expenditure of £500 million a year on training and horse purchases, this is a huge industry.
The British Horseracing Authority estimates that there are over 100,000 people employed in racing and associated industries, including betting which made a profit of over £5.5 billion from British racing in the last five years.
We have a long and illustrious tradition of equestrian sports in this country. This is something that we should celebrate and seek to export across the world. There are fantastic opportunities, not least developing the market for bloodstock and allied services. I raised the potential for this with the Chinese Ambassador in February and I know that my colleague Michael Howard has been doing sterling work as part of the recent Horseracing Industry Mission to China.
Turning to the events of recent weeks, the substitution of beef with horsemeat in a number of products has shaken consumer confidence. It is totally unacceptable that anyone should buy something labelled beef and end up with horsemeat. That is fraud. I am determined that this criminal activity should be stopped and that anyone who has defrauded the customer must feel the full force of the law.
Food safety is a European competence. Under EU regulation 178/2002, food business operators have primary responsibility for verifying that food is of the right quality and correctly labelled. It is for food businesses to get out there and win back the confidence of their customers. That’s why, working with the Food Standards Agency, I asked food businesses to carry out an unprecedented programme of testing for horse DNA. Out of 5430 tests so far only 44 have tested positive. That’s less than 1 per cent.
This is a Europe-wide problem and I spoke to key Ministers from affected Member States, resulting in an emergency meeting with the Commissioner in Brussels. We agreed five points for action, the most important of which is Europe-wide DNA testing.
There have also been concerns about bute entering the food chain via horsemeat. Bute poses a very low risk to human health. The Chief Medical Officer has stated that you would need to eat between 500 and 600 hundred burgers of contaminated horse meat a day in order to achieve a human dose. At the moment all horse carcases are being tested for bute and will not be released into the food chain unless they test negative. But this is not a long-term solution.
I recently met with representatives from the Equine Sector Council to discuss horse passports and ways of improving them. We agreed that the current system is far from perfect and urgently needs strengthening. We will work together to introduce new quality standards for passports, making them more difficult to tamper with. While there will always be some who will try and beat the system, we must reduce opportunities for fraud. We want a system that protects the welfare of horses and the health of humans.
The number and operating practices of Passport Issuing Organisations in this country has also come under scrutiny. There are no current plans to move to a single issuing body as has been suggested but those of you who are Passport Issuing Organisations need to help us get the system working better. You will already know that the Department intends to set new minimum standards for quality and operating efficiency.
I have asked my officials to move forward quickly on this and we will be consulting shortly. For some of you, particularly those smaller organisations who play such an important role in supporting rare breeds like the Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale, this may prove difficult. But events in the last few weeks show us very clearly why it is important that the controls work well and that the system is as stringent as possible.
I know that many of you were disappointed by the withdrawal of Defra funding for the National Equine Database. I am looking forward to hearing the sector’s proposals on what a new central equine database would look like and how that could be managed and funded by the industry.
The dog sector is already leading the way through the industry-led Microchipping Alliance, with charities funding free microchips and database owners developing and funding portals for sharing microchip information. The Dog’s Trust alone has offered £6million to ensure that every dog in England can have a free microchip.
The proactive stance being taken by the sector to improve the Tripartite Agreement is another excellent example of the partnership approach. I am particularly grateful that UK equestrianism has worked so hard to develop and come forward with its own proposals for improving the arrangements we currently have in place with France and Ireland.
We need to retain the Agreement in some shape or form. It has a valuable role to play not least for sport horses and thoroughbreds, including brood mares. However, given the emerging disease risk and changing nature and patterns of equine trade, a review of its efficacy is increasingly necessary.
An outbreak of Equine Infectious Anaemia in October last year confirmed the importance of vigilance. It also highlighted the importance of working closely with industry and other stakeholders.
By acting quickly to cull the two infected horses and tracing contact horses, we were able to stamp out the disease quickly and effectively.
The outbreak of Equine Infectious Anaemia as well as cases of Contagious Equine Metritis and Equine Viral Arteritis in 2012 serves as a timely reminder for us to look at the rationale for the Government’s intervention in all exotic diseases, not just those of horses.
For some diseases, especially where there is a need to protect human health or where there is the potential for a large impact on trade or wider society, for example, African Horse Sickness, the rationale for government intervention appears to be clear. For other diseases, especially those that are preventable or treatable, with established industry led Codes of Practice in place, this is less so.
We will work closely with the industry and consult before any changes are made, ensuring that the health of animals which have a huge economic, social and personal value is safeguarded.
Horses, and the activities they support, are an integral part of our national life. 2012 and the role horses played in the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee and the success of Team GB, only served to reinforce this.
That’s why an effective horse passports system, a robust Tripartite Agreement and rigorous disease control are so important. You are the experts on the sector and I really value the help and support you are offering my officials and I as we work on these key issues.
I look forward to working with you to ensure that this world-leading industry, which generates both enjoyment and revenue, continues to receive the support and recognition it deserves.