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Inside the PMU Industry: An FoA Investigation

Pregnant Mares' Urine Investigative Report

It's late on a bitterly cold January night as the owner of a farm in a remote corner of a midwestern prairie state closes the door to his barn and drives his truck down the icy driveway to the white two-story farmhouse he shares with several family members.

It is an isolated location, not a place you would just happen upon. A visitor taking one of the few "puddle-jumper" flights to the nearest small town is likely to be the only passenger on the plane. Driving from town to the farm, the scenery doesn't change—30 miles of flat, snow-covered fields on either side of a lonely two-lane road.

Inside the long barn 50 pregnant mares stand tied in narrow stalls. There are draft horses, Quarter horses, a few Thoroughbreds. Tethered by short ropes, they are unable to turn around or lie down comfortably, if at all. An agitated chestnut Thoroughbred mare restlessly chews a worn area on the wooden partition that separates her from the mare on her right.

Rubber tubing runs from a pulley suspended from the ceiling to a hard plastic funnel-like device positioned under her tail and between her rear legs. A larger tube attached to the funnel passes between her front legs to a collection jug at the front of the stall. The contraption prevents her from moving more than a step or two in any direction. The skin under the rubber tubing along her hindquarters has become raw from the friction of her restless movements. She is thirsty, but the automatic watering device in her stall is dry.

A few stalls down, a large roan draft horse shifts her 2,400 pound weight from side to side, searching for a comfortable position. Now in her eighth month of pregnancy, she wants to lie down but the narrow stall prevents a mare of her size from doing so.

The funnel positioned to collect urine has moved out of place and is now filled with feces, an unhygienic condition that will not be alleviated until the farmer makes his rounds late the following morning and removes the device, knocking it against a wall to clean it. In the meantime the situation will cause further irritation to the large sore the collection apparatus has already caused to form under her tail.

Located at the end of long snow-covered driveway, the outward appearance of this barn reveals nothing out of the ordinary. But the owners of the farm do not advertise their business. Visitors are not welcome here. This is a PMU farm, and it is one of a growing number of such operations within the U.S.

PMU stands for Pregnant Mares' Urine, the main ingredient in the popular drug Premarin, used to treat the symptoms of menopause. Premarin is marketed by Wyeth-Ayerst, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant American Home Products. Millions of menopausal women are prescribed this drug every year, most unaware that it is derived from the urine of pregnant mares who are force to stand for months at a time while their urine is being collected.

The mares are put "on line" in the barns in October where they will remain until mid-March. They are often subjected to water restriction in order to produce a more estrogen-concentrated urine. Most of the foals born to these mares are considered simply by-products, and are shipped to Canadian slaughter plants that supply the demand for horsemeat in Europe and Japan.

The PMU industry has made an effort in recent years to deflect negative publicity about the foals-to-slaughter issue by claiming that producers are upgrading their mares in order to produce better quality foals, who are then sold or "adopted" to good owners. This appears to be true to some extent, but with more than 40,000 foals reaching the market at the same time every year there are still thousands of these "byproducts" of the PMU industry meeting violent deaths on slaughterhouse kill floors.

The PMU industry has been around for decades, but only came to the attention of the public in recent years when the living conditions of mares and mistreatment of foals was exposed. For the past several years there have been rumors of the expansion of farms from Canada and North Dakota further into the U.S. This has been difficult to confirm; information on specific locations of collection barns is kept secret by the industry.

In November 2000, Friends of Animals undertook an investigation into the current state of the PMU industry. Our questions: What, if anything, has changed over the past several years in terms of treatment of the mares? Is the PMU farming industry, previously confined to operations under contract to Wyeth-Ayerst in Canada and North Dakota, starting to expand further into the U.S.? Are tens of thousands of foals still ending up being butchered for the foreign horsemeat trade?

Our conclusion is that, sadly, little if anything about the industry has changed since the negative publicity of the previous decade. Most alarming is the confirmation that the number of PMU collection farms in the United States has doubled during that time. PMU farmers and other sources consulted during the investigation confirmed that there are now collection barns in operation a number of midwestern states, including Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, and South Dakota. This expansion is due to the establishment of a new U.S. PMU processing plant, Natural Biologics LLC.

Headquartered in Albert Lea, Minnesota, Natural Biologics is owned by David and Steve Saveraid. According to press reports, the brothers' aim is to obtain FDA approval of a generic version of Premarin. As of the date of this report, that approval is pending. The processing plant, however, is already in operation. Surveillance photos taken of the facility during the FoA investigation show a warehouse-type building in an industrial section of town. According to a Dun & Bradstreet report, the company has 36 employees and $3,600,000.00 in annual sales. Natural Biologics has now contracted with 38 farmers in seven states to produce the raw material needed for its product.

After months of research an FoA investigator was able to identify and obtain access to a PMU collection barn under contract to Natural Biologics. Inside the barn the investigator observed rows of mares tethered in narrow tie stalls. The stalls were clearly too small for the comfort of the animals, especially in the case of the large draft breeds. The farmer acknowledged that these larger mares could not lie down in the small enclosures without getting stuck.

The investigator noted that many of the horses showed signs of frustration, constantly pawing the ground or kicking or chewing the wooden partitions of the stalls. The investigator also observed what appeared to be sores from irritation caused by the urine collection apparatus. When the investigator made a final visit to the farm, the mares had been "on line" for almost six months.

The farmer described them as "miserable" at that point, due to the confinement and their advanced stage of pregnancy. The odor in the barn was very strong—not the pleasant horsy smell of a clean stable but the unmistakable stench of animals kept in close confinement for long periods of time.

The owners of this farm are very concerned about confidentiality and only agreed to talk to the investigator on the condition of anonymity. They stated that inspections by the company are cursory at best, and frequently consist of the "inspector" driving up to the barn and asking a few questions without even getting out of his truck. The PMU farmers interviewed also acknowledged that the company advises producers to limit their horses' water intake. This practice has resulted in health problems among horses used in the industry—they related the tragic case of five mares on a PMU farm in a neighboring state who died as a result of complications caused by severe water deprivation.

There were other indications of problems in collection barns - the operators of another PMU farm under contract to the same company backed out of their agreement to meet with the FoA investigator due to their concerns about conditions in their collection barn. The investigator later learned that, the morning of the scheduled visit, a mare had collapsed in her stall.

In March, the FoA investigator traveled to a Canadian horse feedlot and slaughter plant -the final destination of thousands of PMU foals every year. The investigator observed hundreds of horses in the unsheltered feedlot awaiting their deaths on the kill floor only yards away. There were many young horses, undoubtedly unwanted PMU foals from last year's season. Animals too weak to survive the stresses of travel, harsh weather conditions or illness are left to die; in one holding pen a small dark horse lay dead, left there among the living for days.

In spring, the mares are out of the PMU barns and the foaling season begins. The mares are impregnated again almost immediately after giving birth. In late summer and early fall, many of the foals are sold at auction and loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter plants. In October, the mares go back on the line and the cycle starts again.

he aging of the baby boomer generation means more and more women reaching menopause every year. Never has the need for education about treatment options, including ethical concerns, been greater. The good news is that there are now many choices available for women faced with the issue of hormone replacement.

The suffering of the mares and foals who are victims of the PMU industry can be alleviated if women facing menopause or hysterectomy choose plant-derived or synthetic estrogen products instead of organics. You can help stop the abuse of the approximately 100,000 mares and foals who suffer in PMU collection barns and slaughter plants every year.

What you can do:

If you are considering hormone-replacement therapy, ask your physician for a synthetic or plant-based alternative to PMU-based drugs. Alternatives include Cenestin, Estrace, Estraderm, FemPatch, Ogen, Ortho-EST, Vivelle, Estratab, Estring, Alora, Climara, Menest, Estinyl, Ortho-Prefest and Tace. An option many women are discussing with health practitioners is that of forgoing estrogen replacement therapy in favor of natural remedies and dietary and lifestyle changes.