To kill or not to kill?

 

Recently, it seems people on both sides of the pond have horse slaughter on the brain. In Europe, the discovery of horsemeat in Ikea’s purportedly all-beef meatballs has countries pointing fingers at each other, trying pin the blame for mislabeled meat on someone else. Ultimately, the issue seems to boil down to different degrees of acceptance of eating horses.

Here in the United States, the question is not “to eat or not to eat,” but rather, “to kill or not to kill.” Horse slaughter has been essentially illegal since 2006, when Congress shut down all slaughterhouses that produced horsemeat for human consumption by blocking spending for federal inspection. The last plant closed a year later. But that federal ban lapsed in 2011. Now, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture processes an application for the country’s first horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico, four federal lawmakers have introduced a bill that would once again ban killing horses for human consumption. It would also prevent would-be sellers from carting horses to slaughterhouses across the border.

Valley Meat Company of Roswell, N.M., put in the application for a horsemeat inspector soon after the ban was lifted. But the USDA stalled, and eventually the company sued, forcing the agency to pick up the pace. The project appears likely to be approved, although recent revelations that the plant disposed of cattle carcasses incorrectly could throw a wrench in the process.

Even though most of Valley Meat’s horsemeat would be exported to places like Mexico, Russia, China and, yes, Europe, the idea of someone, somewhere, eating horses that have been killed in the U.S. for that explicit purpose is unsettling to many Americans. The anti-horse-slaughter law, called the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, appears to be a response to both the European scandal and the proposed New Mexico slaughterhouse; horse and animal rights activists around the country have embraced it.

The reasons for opposing horse slaughter vary, but “the practice of horse slaughter for human consumption is revolting to me as a horse owner, (and) as a consumer,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told E&E News (subscription required). Landrieu also questioned the human health risks of eating horses, some of them retired race horses that had been treated with drugs and other chemicals.

Others argue that slaughtering horses is simply inhumane. "The methods used to kill horses rarely result in quick, painless deaths,” The Humane Society of the United States told The L.A. Times. “Horses often endure repeated stuns or blows and sometimes remain conscious during their slaughter and dismemberment.”

And still others see horses — in particular wild horses — as symbols of the American spirit that simply don’t belong on anyone’s plate. “What happened to the pride we once had, back when we saw wild horses as living symbols of our national heritage?” Mae Lee Sun wrote in High Country News.

But not killing horses has consequences, too. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that the domestic horse slaughter ban unintentionally harmed horses by shifting slaughter over the border to Canada and Mexico, where they are not overseen by USDA inspectors. According to The Wall Street Journal, about 170,000 horses were sent to slaughter in those countries last year.

Other advocates of horse slaughter, like Valley Meat Company owner Rick de los Santos, say horse slaughterhouses are job creators and prevent business from being lost to Mexico. "I've seen 130,000 horses a year on their way to Mexico — they go right through our backyard — and I wanted to tap into the market," he told The L.A. Times. "I could have hired 100 people by now. Everyone in our community agrees we need this type of service. And I'm tired of waiting."

Santos also says he frequently hears from ranchers who have too many horses on their hands -- some of which they can no longer afford to feed -- but nowhere to send them.

The Bureau of Land Management, which spends over $75 million a year managing wild horses and burros, has the same problem. The agency has been reluctant to (knowingly) sell horses to slaughter, despite it now being legal, and as a result, the agency has accumulated thousands of horses rounded up from the range in long-term holding pens with no good place to put them. There are now more wild horses in captivity than in the wild. (Read more about the BLM’s wild horse problem in reporter Dave Phillips’ HCN cover story “Nowhere to Run,” or Lynn Bama’s story “Wild Horses: do they belong in the West?”)

The USDA is urging Congress to reinstate the horse slaughter ban, but says it will have no choice but to provide horsemeat inspectors if that doesn’t happen. Sequestration has already made things difficult for the agency, which will furlough meat inspectors to cut costs. Sen. Landrieu worries that the agency doesn’t have enough money to start a horsemeat inspection program.

In addition to the Roswell, N.M., slaughterhouse, the agency has received several other applications for horsemeat inspectors in Wyoming, Missouri and Oklahoma, so the debate is likely to continue. Ultimately it comes down to perception: “Many of us look at horses as livestock. Others see the horse as a large dog,” Chris Whitney, then-president of the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance, told HCN in 2008. “It’s tough to meld the approaches and points of view.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ro Irving