Horse passports: up to 7,000 unauthorised documents issued

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The documents were issued by an equine society after the government had withdrawn its right to grant passports, sources have said.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One organisation, the Spotted Horse and Pony Society, had their right to issue passports withdrawn by Defra in 2008, according to media reports.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.