Contaminated pet food investigation traces toxic horse meat back to NT property


A single property in the Northern Territory has been identified as the source of toxic horse meat, believed responsible for a spate of dog deaths in Victoria.

Key points:

• Authorities have traced toxic horse meat back to a single property in Central Australia

• At least 23 pet dogs have died, and 67 have been hospitalised in Victoria from indospicine poisoning

• Australia exported more than 800 tonnes of “edible horse” meat in 2020

Authorities are not naming the location but have visited the property and interviewed its manager — who is said to be shocked by what has happened.

It is understood the property sold a truckload of about 25 horses, but they were not intended to go to Victoria.

“I have been on the property and discussed the situation with the manager and he was completely unaware that the [final] destination of the horses was Victoria for manufactured pet food,” Peter Saville, the NT’s principal veterinary officer, said.

“The manager’s understanding was the horses would go to a meatworks in Queensland for human consumption and our investigation has suggested the horses were re-directed [to Victoria] due to COVID lockdowns.”

Dr Saville said samples had been collected from another 80 horses on the property, which will be tested for levels of the toxin indospicine.

When asked if the toxic horse meat would have been harmful to humans, Dr Saville said “not necessarily”.

“Humans are far more tolerant to low-levels of indospicine than dogs and the amount of meat in a human diet is much lower than a dog diet … given dogs are repeatedly fed the same diet almost every day.”

‘No signs of sick horses’, NT vet says

In the Northern Territory, under its Meat Industries Act 1996, it is illegal for a person to slaughter a horse for pet food “if he or she knows, or has reason to suspect, it has been in an area in which Birdsville Horse Disease occurs.”

Birdsville disease is a toxic condition in horses caused by eating a native species of Indigofera.

Dr Saville said while inspecting the NT property linked to the Victorian pet food contamination, he saw no evidence of horses suffering from Birdsville disease and did not see any signs of the Indigofera plants growing on the property.

He described the horses in question as “semi-feral” and said it was very unusual for horses to be sold from the NT.

“The Northern Territory faces issues with an expanding [feral] horse population which leads to land degradation and animal welfare issues during dry times,” he said.

“The owner of this property was very keen to reduce his horse numbers to try and avoid these issues.

“There isn’t much of a market for horses at the moment and the movement of horses for slaughter has dropped off dramatically over the last 10 years and is almost non-existent.

“So when this person was contacted and asked if he could supply a truckload of horses he was very enthusiastic.”

According to the Federal Department of Agriculture, Australia exported 808 tonnes of “edible horse meat” last year and 285 tonnes of “inedible horse”.

‘I miss him every day’

In Victoria, Laura Curtin is mourning the loss of her pet Labrador, named Hodge, who died on July 13 after suffering liver failure.

She says she took the dog to a vet several times between July 5 and 8 and was told Hodge’s liver tests were “off the charts” and contaminated pet food was the likely cause.

At least 23 pet dogs have died, and 67 have been hospitalised in Victoria from indospicine poisoning.

Speaking to ABC Rural, Ms Curtin says she bought a kangaroo pet meat product for her dog in early July, and was horrified to learn it may have been contaminated with toxic horse meat.

Ms Curtain made the tough decision to put her pet down, when treatment did not appear to be working and her veterinarian suspected the dog had suffered neurological damage.

“I miss him every day,” she said.

“There needs to be accountability, so it doesn’t happen again in the future.”, 10 August 2021