The American horse meat industry is back in business. Regulators recently gave the green light to facilities in New Mexico and Iowa, with more approvals expected soon.
Right out of the gate, however, the burgeoning enterprise already faces big hurdles. With two bills to ban the practice before Congress and a recent European contamination scandal, appreciation for equine eats is at an all-time low.
Animal rights groups have fought for years to terminate the industry, and although there has been broad support for a ban in both the House and Senate, the Farm Bureau and a handful of lawmakers have prevented past bills from going to committee.
Congress previously snuffed out horse meat production by repealing inspection provisions for horse slaughterhouses. But the strategy was only designed to be temporary, and since the repeal ended in 2011, plants eager for production have been prodding the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to fulfill its obligation.
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe told reporters that while the Obama administration has requested that lawmakers reinstate the ban on horse slaughter, “Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law.”
Article Continues after the discussion. Vote and comment
[tok id=3ce6afc05853b0f8a9c08a0228fb3702 partner=1966]
Preventing a cruel and painful death is one reason that many want to stop the horse meat trade. According to Nancy Perry, Senior Vice President of government relations for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), unlike cows and pigs, horses are easily startled, making a profitable yet humane slaughter system impossible to achieve.
“Even if you did everything possible and put all kinds of money into it, horses have a different response,” Perry said. “They are the most extreme example of a flight animal you can imagine.”
Photos the ASPCA obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show animals with deep puncture wounds in the eye and head, revealing that a system designed for an immediate kill instead just jabs the jittery target.
“We’re talking about a more fractious animal in an environment that’s already pretty imperfect and expecting that to be done humanely,” Perry said. “It’s a foolish expectation.”
Although horse meat is a culinary tradition in some parts of Asia and Europe, Americans tend to see the animal more as a pet than a main course. The horse meat industry functions exclusively to supply a foreign market, but recent history has shown that horse meat can easily spread beyond intended boundaries.
In February, food inspectors in Germany, Greece, France, and other European countries found that packages said to contain beef also contained a significant amount of undeclared horse—in some cases the package was found to be 100 percent equine.
While no one wants mystery meat, researchers say the prospect of horse is particularly dangerous. Since horses are raised primarily for work and entertainment, they are likely to have been treated with any of 110 drugs deemed unsafe for human consumption. Animals raised for food would not be given those drugs.
New Mexico Attorney General Gary King tried to prevent horse meat production in his state by directing attention to the threat of drug contamination. In a June 10 statement, King pointed to a 2010 food safety study involving phenylbutazone (PBZ)—a strong anti-inflammatory widely prescribed for horses, but potentially fatal to humans.
Researchers from Tufts University found that while veterinary records from horses sent to slaughter are not available to the public, “there appears to be inadequate testing to ensure that horses given banned substances such as PBZ do not enter the slaughter pipeline.”
Federal regulators say they have since improved their technology and know how to prevent problems. According to a statement from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, American consumers should not be worried that horse will be mixed with other meat as happened in Europe, because “horse meat is not allowed to be processed in the same facility as other species in the United States.”
Regulators boast a “stringent inspection process, testing capabilities, and labeling requirements,” but Perry isn’t convinced.
“What happened in Europe could easily happen here now,” she said.
“When the scandal was at its height in the UK and Europe, the USDA was asked if it could happen here and their only reassurance was horses aren’t slaughtered in the U.S. So they must have believed just a few short months ago that domestic horse slaughter was actually creating a risk.”
Even if the USDA managed to mitigate all problems related to horse inspection, critics say it still diverts necessary attention away from other endeavors, like poultry and beef. With recent reports showing meat inspections already falling short, diverting resources to horse slaughterhouses adds insult to injury.
“We’re going to take resources in this time of sequester and spread it thinner so we can cover a product that we don’t want, that we don’t politically support, and that we’re not going to consume,” Perry said.