Blood farms in Argentina and Uruguay
During our investigations regarding the importation of horsemeat we were confronted with further cruel practices involving horses in Uruguay and Argentina: blood farms. Places, where the blood of thousands of pregnant mares is extracted without regard for their health and welfare. Their blood contains the hormone PMSG (Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotropin), which is used in Europe to stimulate and synchronise oestrus in farmed animals, such as sows or dairy cows. PMSG can also be used to induce superovulation, which results in larger litter sizes, or to induce puberty in sows.
Since early 2015, we have been investigating the blood business in Uruguay and Argentina and have regularly reported our findings. It is a business worth millions, which has delivered high profits for about 40 years. We have spoken to (former) employees of blood farms, neighbours, veterinarians, blood farmers and heads of government departments. Our findings clearly show that in Argentina and Uruguay, more than 10,000 mares are cruelly mistreated and exploited for the meat and dairy industries in Europe. Due to the massive and repeated blood extractions, they become anaemic or suffer from deficiency diseases, and injuries remain untreated. Because the hormone can only be obtained during early pregnancy, the foals are aborted so that the mares can be impregnated twice a year, further adding to their suffering. About 30% of mares drop out of the production system every year: they either die in the pastures or are sent to EU-approved slaughterhouses when they no longer get pregnant.
Investigations from January and April 2018 prove that nothing has changed since 2015, despite the allegations of import companies and authorities to have taken control of the situation with new manuals and audits. Video footage shows: Pregnant mares are still most brutally abused during the blood extraction process. Injured, sick or emaciated mares still do not receive veterinary treatment but are left to fend for themselves in vast forested pastures.
In Uruguay and Argentina, the blood business is tolerated and even partly subsidised by the state, and the hormone is profitably used by large pharmaceutical companies (Hipra, Zoetis). After MSD/Merck in 2017, the German pharma company IDT Biologika and the French company Ceva Santé Animale declared, in July 2018, that they would no longer import PMSG from South America.
We believe that European consumers should be informed about this business and the suffering of blood mares. Our main goals are raising public awareness and achieving an EU-wide import ban on PMSG from South America as well as a ban on the use of the hormone in European animal farming.
PMSG production in Germany
When we discovered the PMSG production in the Thuringian Haflinger stud Meura at the end of 2019, the authorities gave contradictory statements: The federal government was of the opinion that blood collections from pregnant mares are to be classified as animal experiments and the state authorities are responsible for the approval. In contrast, the Thuringian ministry (TMASGFF) took the view that the serum collection for the production of an active substance is not an animal experiment and thus not subject to approval. Because of these inconsistent legal interpretations, we commissioned a legal expert opinion. It comes to a clear conclusion: Blood collections for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals are classified as animal experiments. However, the blood collections for the production of PMSG are unlawful because animal experiments must fulfil the condition of indispensability. According to the federal government, there are 36 synthetic alternatives to PMSG available on the market. Hence the PMSG production is not necessary, it is dispensable. Furthermore, the German guidelines for the collection of blood and blood products generally prohibit blood extractions from pregnant mares.
After several complaints and requests, the Thuringian ministry and the competent state agency changed their mind in mid-2020 and stated that the procedure in Meura is indeed an animal experiment. Without further examination of the preconditions, Meura was granted the permission to continue tapping blood from pregnant mares for another five years.
We take legal and political action against this arbitrary approval practice and these unnecessary "animal experiments". We advocate for a ban on PMSG production at national and EU level. It must be prevented that Germany and Meura become a door opener for an EU-wide PMSG production.
PMSG production in Iceland
In Iceland, blood has been drawn from pregnant mares for about 40 years, but the business has tripled over the past decade. Several pharmaceutical companies stopped importing PMSG from Uruguay and Argentina after the blood farm scandal that became public seven years ago and are now sourcing PMSG from Iceland. In 2021, blood was taken from 5,300 mares on 119 farms. The Icelandic pharma company Isteka buys blood from individual farmers but also runs their own blood farms, where they keep hundreds of mares. The turnover of Isteka was 11 million Euro in 2020.
Five litres of blood are extracted from the pregnant mares every week, during two months. This is more than four times as much as international guidelines would recommend. Most of the mares used for PMSG production are semi-wild; they are used for meat and PMSG production only and are not used to human handling. These untamed horses are frightened or even panic when being moved into small restraint boxes. Force is used on those who resist; they are beaten with whips, plastic pipes, iron bars or wooden beams. Once inside the restraint box, their head is tied up by a rope and a strap is fixed over their back so they cannot rear up. This kind of treatment and restraint leads to repeated traumatisation, also known as “learned helplessness”. Furthermore, the methods of restraint pose numerous risks of injuries.
Iceland has a long tradition of breeding horses for slaughter. However, in the same period that the PMSG production has tripled, the slaughter prices for foals have decreased drastically. Nowadays, the foals are just a cheap by-product of the blood business. The farmers earn about four times as much for a mare’s blood than they earn for her foal.
A few weeks after we published our documentary film in Iceland, a bill was submitted to the Icelandic parliament, asking for a ban on blood collections from pregnant mares. The bill is currently under assessment by a parliamentary committee. At the same time, a working group established by the minister of agriculture is examining the legal basis and economic impact of the activity and is supposed to publish their findings and recommendations by June 2022.
We support the Icelandic bill and the call of the European Parliament that is asking the European Commission to stop both the import and domestic production of PMSG.