Princess Anne horsemeat comments spark debate

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Media captionPrincess Anne was speaking to the annual conference of the charity, World Horse Welfare, of which she is the president

Animal welfare charities have welcomed Princess Anne's suggestion that horse welfare could be improved by putting horsemeat on sale in UK supermarkets.

She claimed owners might take better care of their horses if they believed they could sell them for meat.

The Princess Royal made her remarks in a speech to the charity World Horse Welfare, of which she is president.

It comes as charities warn of a horse welfare "crisis", with 7,000 at risk of abandonment and neglect this winter.

They said a fuller debate was needed.

'Real market'

Earlier this year the discovery of horse DNA in processed food products on sale at UK and Irish Republic supermarkets sparked a major scandal.

It resulted in a series of product recalls and threw the spotlight on the food industry's supply chain, testing procedures and food labelling.

In the speech, on Thursday, Princess Anne suggested British attitudes towards eating horsemeat may have to change.

"Should we be considering a real market for horsemeat and would that reduce the number of welfare cases, if there was a real value in the horsemeat sector?" said the former eventing champion.

"I chuck that out for what it's worth because I think it needs a debate."

Jeanette Allen, head of the Horse Trust, who attended the speech, said the princess raised an interesting point.

"Farming is something we find culturally acceptable in this country but it just so happens that as a culture we haven't embraced horses being part of that livestock - but other cultures have," she said.

Image caption Butchers in France offer cuts of horsemeat similar to those offered in the UK for beef

"It's an interesting question and once we've had the debate we may well decide as a culture that we're still not interested in doing that but that doesn't mean the question isn't interesting to ask."

She said there were about 7,000 horses in the UK "at risk of suffering some serious neglect over this coming winter".

The value of those animals commercially was as little as £5-£10, she said.

When asked if she would eat horsemeat, Ms Allen said she was "personally squeamish about it, although I am a meat-eater".

"I have no rationality for that at all... What I care about in the meat I choose to eat is the welfare standard of the farming process and the abattoir process before it reaches my table," she added.

'Neglected and abused'

Jenny MacGregor, chairwoman of the Society for the Welfare of Horses and Ponies, said the princess was "brave" for starting the debate because it was likely to prove controversial.

She said she believed the prospect of horsemeat becoming a staple in Britain was "realistic" - and even essential given the number of cases of neglect and abuse UK charities were seeing each day.

If the value of horses was raised, with the meat market in mind, owners would take better care of their animals, she said.

"Princess Anne has come up with something practical which, in the long run, will be of great value," she said.

Roly Owers, of World Horse Welfare, said the charity's view was that while a horse or pony was alive, it should be treated with care and compassion.

"That is the core issue... We are in the grip of a UK equine crisis and we need to look at all options of solving that," he said.

He warned that owners who chose to put their animal into the human food chain should "not be castigated for it". About 10,000 horses from the UK went into the human food chain last year, he said.

The RSPCA said it welcomed any debate into the "growing problems" surrounding horse welfare which it had "very grave concerns" about.

"Our centres, and those of other charities, are overflowing with horses which have been abandoned, neglected and abused and we are struggling to keep up with the demands for our help," a spokeswoman said.

The charity said the killing of horses for meat was "an emotive subject", a sentiment the RSPCA had sympathy with.

But it said its primary concern was that they were cared for and that they were slaughtered in a humane way.

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