Animal advocates ask CFIA to immediately ban flights of live horse shipments to Japan

Animal rights advocates who followed four recent shipments of live horses for slaughter from Canada to Japan are calling on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to stop the exports until exporters comply with regulations that say the animals can’t go more than 28 hours without food, water and rest. 

The investigation by the group Animal Justice found most of the shipments detailed in a new report exceed the legal 28-hour limit. CBC News has not independently verified this.

“The footage from Japan is heartbreaking and shows that the situation is way worse than we ever expected,” said Kaitlyn Mitchell, director of legal advocacy at Animal Justice. 

“These horses are clearly exhausted and desperately thirsty. I was shocked that they are forced to wait up to six and a half more hours after landing before they can eat, drink and rest.”

For its report, Animal Justice collaborated with colleagues at Life Investigation Agency — a Tokyo-based animal welfare organization — to monitor horses in four shipments from Edmonton to quarantine centres in Japan, which happened in May and June.

Horses are shown standing in a transport vehicle, with workers in hardhats standing nearby.
A photo shows horses at Kitakyushu Airport in Japan waiting to be transported to a quarantine centre on May 7, 2024, according to the Tokyo-based animal welfare organization Life Investigation Agency. (Submitted by Life Investigation Agency)

The investigation found that while the actual flight time was under the 28-hour legal time limit, once the transportation time from the Canadian farm to airport and from the Japanese airport to quarantine was included, all four exceeded the limit.

The advocacy group also looked back at government data covering 14 horse shipments since November 2023, departing from Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Based on official Canadian Food Inspection Agency duration times to ship the horses to Japan, and estimates of how long it would take the horses to reach quarantine from the airport, the group estimates at least two-thirds of those shipments, including all four of the flights from Winnipeg, exceeded the legal time limit. 

According to Statistics Canada, about 2,600 Canadian horses were exported to Japan for slaughter in 2022, where raw horsemeat is eaten raw as a delicacy.

Frightened, injured horses: advocacy group

The Tokyo group says it videotaped horses being unloaded from planes at the Kitakyushu and Kansai airports, and put into trucks to be taken to quarantine facilities.

“All the horses that arrived in Japan seemed frightened and some were injured,” Ren Yabuki, co-founder and director of Life Investigation Agency, wrote in an email to CBC News.

“Once arrived at the quarantine facility, horses were sprayed with disinfectant, and some of them were confused, frightened, trembling, and refused to get off the truck,” Yabuki wrote.

Facility staff holding metal bars shouted at horses to move them out of the trucks, according to Yabuki.

“Some of the horses looked dazed and looked like they might collapse at any moment.”

Nine groups, including the Humane Society International/Canada, have asked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to investigate, impose an immediate moratorium on shipments, and take enforcement action against the exporters.

Read the letter to the CFIA below or here

“The companies exporting these horses either know full well that they’re regularly violating the law, or they’re simply not bothering to monitor what happens to these horses once they land,” Animal Justice’s Mitchell said.

“Either way, their failure to ensure the 28-hour legal limit is met is causing unfathomable suffering to these innocent animals.”

The CFIA said it is reviewing the information provided by Animal Justice. Any followup will be in accordance with theagency’s compliance and enforcement policy, and could include education and non-compliance letters, administrative monetary penalties and court prosecution, said a statement emailed from the agency on Tuesday. If formal charges are laid, the CFIA will publish a bulletin on its website.

The department said under Canadian horse transport regulations, the 28-hour interval allowed without food, water and rest starts when the horses no longer have access to those things — usually the start of the loading process.

For air shipments, the 28-hour interval begins with the start of the loading process at the Canadian farm or feedlot where the horses are held before being trucked to the airport, CFIA said. If horses are provided with food, water and rest during their transport, the 28-hour time restarts.

The 28-hour interval continues until the horses are provided with food, water and rest in Japan, or at another suitable stopover facility or airport. The CFIA said it does not conduct inspections in Japan, but considers the expected time required for off-loading from the aircraft and ground transport outlined in the transport plan provided by the exporter. Japanese authorities are responsible for the regulatory oversight of animals transported within Japan.

Claims of terrified horses ‘gross manipulation’: exporter

Meanwhile, one of the exporters from Manitoba, Carolyn Lumax, said via email that all of their transport trucks are bedded with hay so horses have access to food for the five-hour transport between their farm and the time they are loaded into crates at the Winnipeg airport.

“The CFIA is aware of this,” she wrote in a Wednesday email.

Lumax added that horses sleep standing up, so they rest whenever the trucks or crates are not moving.

“Our experience tells us they won’t drink for the first 35 hours,” Lumax wrote, adding that’s because they’re creatures of habit who don’t like water that has chlorine or smells strange to them.

She disputed claims the horses are terrified, describing those claims as unsubstantiated and a “gross manipulation.” The horses transported for slaughter are more like cattle, said Lumax — not saddle or show horses that are high-strung and bred to be energetic.

Mitchell says Canada is responsible for enforcing regulations that should be met in the case of live exports, no matter which country the animals are sent to. The export companies are also responsible for compliance.

Kaitlyn Mitchell, director of legal advocacy with Animal Justice, a non-profit fighting to have the horse meat industry banned.
Kaitlyn Mitchell is the director of legal advocacy with Animal Justice, a non-profit that wants the horse meat industry banned. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“Export companies’ duties do not end the moment the planes take off from Canada,” she said.

“The CFIA is in regular contact with authorities in Japan, and part of those communications should include making sure that horses sent from Canada are at the quarantine facility where they can eat, drink and rest within 28 hours.

“When that does not happen, the export companies should be held to account.”

More than two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed his agriculture minister to end the export of live horses for slaughter.

In May, the House of Commons voted to pass Bill C-355, which aims to ban the practice. Second reading will take place in the Senate in the fall.