(CNN) — Princess Anne's suggestion that Britons need to reconsider their reluctance to eat horse meat was "brave" and reflects a sad decline in horses' value, the head of a horse welfare charity says.
Addressing the World Horse Welfare conference Thursday, Princess Anne Queen Elizabeth II's daughter and the organization's president suggested that making horse meat more valuable might lead to better treatment of the animals.
The Olympic equestrian referred to the transport of horses from countries such as Poland, the source of some horse meat, saying many horses left looking "absolutely wonderful" but suffered in transit.
"It's worth noting transport of horses itself is the problem not the horses or indeed the way they were brought up," she said.
"If that's true then and they value their horses they look after them well because they're in the horse meat trade and it's the transport that's the problem, should we be considering a real market for horse meat, and would that reduce the number of welfare cases?"
The princess suggested that "our attitudes to the horse meat trade ... and the value of horse meat might have to change."
"I chuck that out for what it's worth because I think it needs a debate," she said.
She noted that Britain's attitude to horse meat was not universal. "As I was reminded, not so long ago, by somebody who'd traveled in France, the most expensive piece of meat in the local butcher was a fillet of horse meat," she said.
"The value of the animal to every individual is slightly different, but if it has real financial value, then you look a little bit further ahead in the way in which you look after your animals."
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said the Princess Royal had made her point "within the context of the equine crisis we're currently in" when ponies are being sold for as little as £5 ($8).
"Around 7,000 horses are currently at risk of abandonment and neglect and charities like ours are struggling to cope as winter approaches," Owers said in a statement.
"The economic downturn has driven prices for horses and ponies to rock bottom, and the sad fact is that from a purely economic perspective, they can now be worth more as meat.
"Many in the horse world have known this for a long time. Our president has been brave enough to say this openly in hopes of generating a thought-provoking debate."
Overbreeding in Britain
The underlying problem, Owers told CNN, was the issue of overbreeding in Britain. "There are too many horses and too few homes."
Owers said he believed Anne was caring but also practical.
"She wasn't actually saying, 'Get out there and buy horse meat.' She was saying, 'We should be open to the debate about it and if the horse goes into the food chain, will it reduce welfare problems?' "
Owers said the option of sending a horse to a slaughterhouse was one that should be available to people.
"The issue is not those horses going to an abattoir it's not that they're going to slaughter that's the problem it's that they are simply not fit and healthy when they reach there," he said.
Owers said he knew of people delaying euthanizing horses because they couldn't afford the expense to call out a vet and to dispose of a carcass.
Britain has a different attitude toward horses than some of its European neighbors, with the idea of eating horse meat an emotional one, he said.
"On the Continent they are viewed as farm animals to a far greater degree; here they are seen as pets, leisure or sport animals."
The debate would be different if horses were regarded in the same light as pigs, sheep or cows, he said.
"As a country we have eaten horse meat in the past we did in the Second World War, but you could argue that it was a time of crisis," Owers said.
Britain's Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals said it welcomed any debate on horse welfare issues.
"Our centers, and those of other charities, are overflowing with horses which have been abandoned, neglected and abused, and we are struggling to keep up with the demands for our help," it said in a statement.
"The killing of horses for meat is an emotive subject as many see them as companion animals rather than a food source, a sentiment the RSPCA has great sympathy with.
"However, the Society's primary concern for all animals killed for meat and otherwise is that they are cared for, handled and transported in a way which safeguards their welfare at all times."