Will the nation accept horse slaughter?

by Ari LeVaux

A judge in Denver may have finally ended the national ban on horse slaughter for good -- or for bad -- depending on your perspective.

On Dec. 13, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals lifted an emergency injunction that had blocked two slaughterhouses, Valley Meat Co., in Roswell, N.M., and Rains Natural Meat in Gallatin, Mo., from killing horses for money. The lifting of the injunction, which was brought by a coalition of animal welfare groups, opens the door to legal horse slaughter within weeks.

For the time being, the horsemeat would be exported. Domestic sale of horsemeat is not illegal, but Congress doesn't currently allocate funds to regulate it for human consumption, something Valley Meat owner Tim Sappington hopes will change. Sappington told Bloomberg News that he eats horsemeat three times a week, chicken-fried horse steak being his favorite dish.

The opening of these slaughterhouses and the outcry it has provoked highlights the complex relationship Americans have with horses. Many people consider horses as friends, and the thought of killing them is deeply disturbing. But the problem remains: What do we do with the unwanted animals? Especially since there are so many of them.

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Wild horses rounded up from Bureau of Land Management land in Utah. Jim Urquhart/Reuters.

The racehorse industry produces a regular supply of spent thoroughbreds and quarter horses. Farmers and ranchers have to dispose of old workhorses, as do horse-drawn carriage operators in big cities. Selling spent horses rather than paying to keep them alive is a logical choice from an economic perspective. That’s what’s been happening, in fact: Since Congress stopped funding activities related to horse slaughter seven years ago, unwanted horses have been auctioned off to meat buyers and quietly shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. Last year, nearly 200,000 animals were shipped across our borders, in a journey that was difficult for the horses and often brutal.

But because the flesh of retired horses can contain vaccines, antibiotics, steroids, painkillers and other medicines unapproved for use in food animals, the European Union is planning to be more selective about the horsemeat it allows to be imported for sale within its borders. Japan and Russia are on the same track.

Meanwhile, a burgeoning population of mustangs roams the arid West, causing ecological and economic damage. While often called "wild," these free-roaming horses (and burros) are more accurately described as “feral” – the descendants of animals brought over by Europeans. Now, the Bureau of Land Management spends $75 million annually to manage mustangs that live on federal land. This budget includes $43 million dedicated to "holding costs" for the approximately 40,000 "excess horses" that have been removed from their range and currently reside on five long-term pasture facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma. The animals deemed most adoptable, meanwhile, are held in one of 54 facilities, all of which are currently at capacity, says the BLM.

Logically, it is these free-roaming horses that should be slaughtered. Given the changing food preferences of today’s world's purchasers, market prospects for clean meat from free-range horses are good. Yet so long as the American relationship with horses remains conflicted -- and a powerful horse-loving lobby holds the stronger hand -- sensible horse management policy may not be in the cards.

Until Congress decides otherwise, millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent each year to manage and protect an invasive species that also happens to be a great source of lean protein, has legitimate market value, and is delicious. I've tried it myself: enjoying it stir-fried in China, where it tastes like a sweet cross between beef and pork, and even eating canned horsemeat in Mongolia, which was better than Spam -- perhaps not the highest praise.

If any horses should be adopted, it’s the spent work- and racehorses that have given their better years to human service. Already trained, these horses are used to people, and because their edibility is questionable, they are the ones that should be adopted by horse lovers.

Lynn Montgomery lives in Placitas, N.M., a community surrounded by open space that’s home to several herds of wild horses. Many people there treat the animals like outdoor pets, even providing them food and water. It's common in Placitas to have cars stopped in the middle of the road, while folks ogle a herd.

"I love the horses," Montgomery told me. "But in the drought we're in, the horses are just devastating. They make trails, which turn into arroyos, which funnel the rain and carve away the land. And when those rare but ferocious drought rains come, it's a total mess.

"When I was growing up in the 1940s, the stores carried Hill's Horsemeat," Montgomery recalls. "The label said, 'For Pet Food Only,' but it had a USDA stamp, so people took it home and ate it. My mom made a wonderful salad, like tuna fish salad with mayonnaise and onions, and we made sandwiches.”

Horsemeat for sale at the supermarket. Is that really such a radical idea?

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in Arizona.

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