A new working group has been established looking into a National Horse Traceability Register in the wake of a Senate Inquiry, but there are some hurdles that need to be overcome. John Burfitt reports
The announcement in February of a working group to establish a National Horse Traceability Register has been welcomed as a step in the right direction on an issue that was dramatically put on the national agenda last year.
News of the establishment of a working group comes only six months after the damning investigation about the welfare of horses in the racing industry by the ABC’s 7.30, just as the Senate Inquiry was about to hand down its own findings.
The new working group is an independent taskforce to review animal welfare in the thoroughbred industry, looking into what happens to horses from retirement to end-of-life management.
The working group will be acting upon the 18 recommendations made in the Senate Inquiry, with the establishment of a National Horse Traceability Register a key issue. Also highlighted for exploration were biosecurity in the equine sector, rider safety, usage of existing databases, the possibility of microchipping horses, and better engagement with abattoirs and knackeries.
The Senate Inquiry acknowledged that owners of dogs and cats were required to register their animals, while questioning why horse owners have been omitted from similar regulatory requirements.
The Executive Summary states: “The most pertinent example is the absence of any clear data on the number of horses that exist in Australia. Further, there is inadequate information available about the location of horses or owner details.”
It concludes: “There is overwhelming support across the horse industry for a National Horse Traceability Register in some form. However, one of the primary challenges … is achieving consensus across the horse industry of a single, clear rationale.”
It’s a point Dr Sam Nugent, president of the Australian Veterinary Association’s Equine Veterinarians Australia (EVA) group, agrees is an obstacle, even though there are similar registers in place in the UK and many European countries.
“There are the basic hurdles of resistance to change, but a large number of stakeholders we have spoken to are in clear support of the way all this is moving,” Dr Nugent says.
Dr Nugent admits the disclosure there’s no traceability register proved to be a major revelation, as many in the veterinary profession assumed there already was one.
“This register is something the EVA has always wanted, but the support has only come to the forefront with the Senate Inquiry,” he says. “We are moving in the right direction, as we have the theory and the government departments are supporting the theory, so now it’s a matter of needing to know the what, when, where and who is going to pay for all of this. Those are the details I’m hoping this working group will be able to decide.”
The Senate Inquiry determined the primary rationale for a National Horse Traceability Register is one of biosecurity. “That’s as simple as we need to know where animals are if we need to control any potential disease outbreak,” Dr Nugent says.
The Inquiry also found public confidence in the racing industry wanting, especially after the concerns raised by the explosive report on 7.30. Federal Agricultural Minister David Littleproud believes the working group has an important role in addressing such concerns.
“The initiative will improve industry transparency and ultimately improve animal welfare,” he said in a statement. “I want this to succeed, so I’ve offered to the independent panel the expertise of the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment. I want the leadership and cooperation of the industry working across state boundaries so a national discussion on horse welfare can take place.”
The private solution
Ali Geeves is the CEO of the equine intelligence network, equiprove. She believes a national register will provide accountability around the care of horses, but believes a market-led solution is essential to its success.
“The government doesn’t have the subject expertise,” she says. “Coming from the market, we know what the problems are and what the solutions need to be, so we can apply it. We are confident we can assist the entire equine industry, including racing to improve welfare standards.”
equiprove provided a submission to the Senate Inquiry outlining support for a system that facilitates capturing, storing and curating data, accessed from many different sources, creating a digital history of the horse and events.
“We also discussed why a centralised database will be inefficient and expensive, and encouraged the committee to look at emerging technologies as a way forward,” Geeves says. There also needs to be, she adds, a focus on making the most of databases already being utilised, particularly breed registers.
“We strongly support a solution that connects and leverages existing databases rather than the creation of a new centralised database,” she explains. “The solution should take advantage of contemporary technology that enables regular and secure data transfers between users, and prioritises obtaining data owners’ authorisation prior to sharing their data.
“What that allows is for one horse to be registered across multiple industry databases while retaining a single identity, with a single, accurate set of data such as unique identifiers like a microchip number, location of horse using GPS and property identification code, the owner’s contact details and the origin of the source data.”
It’s expected the traceability working group will report its finding to the Agricultural Senior Officials Committee within 12 months.
The fact the register has attracted so much attention, and that there’s a range of stakeholders actively involved in the process, is an encouraging sign, Dr Sam Nugent says.
“Starting the discussion is so important, to highlight we need a system, what it needs to achieve and why it needs to be a national system,” he says. “More people are aware of the issues and understand why it’s important we address this now.”