As Americans watch Europeans condemn the discovery of horsemeat in their Ikea meatballs, we can take some solace in the fact that, for once, we’ve sidestepped an industrial food-related travesty. Our complacency, however, could be short-lived. Although less dramatic than horse DNA adulterating ground beef, another horse-related scandal is about to implicate U.S. citizens in a scheme that will send tainted horsemeat into foreign markets while enriching U.S. horse slaughterers with taxpayer dollars.
The last U.S.-based horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007. The phasing out of horse slaughter in the United States ended the exportation of U.S.-produced horsemeat to Canada, Europe, and Japan. This development, among other accomplishments, spelled the decline of a niche business that profited from a product that American taxpayers financially supported (through USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses) but were loathe to consume (plus, it’s illegal to sell horsemeat in the U.S.).
Over the past six years, though, a small cohort of national lobbyists and state representatives has worked to reopen U.S. horse slaughterhouses. Five states—Oklahoma, Montana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Iowa—have already taken legislative steps in that direction. Their collective justification for doing so is that U.S. slaughterhouses are better for the welfare of horses. Without them, they argue, an endless stream of retired race horses will inevitably head to Mexico for slaughter, a terrifying prospect for animals who, advocates further contend, will meet an especially gruesome south-of-the-border death.
On the surface, this argument seems to make sense. Why slaughter horses abroad when we can do so at home? A closer look, however, reveals three problems, each of which suggests that any claim to reinstate horse slaughter on welfare grounds is simply a cynical ploy to dupe Americans into supporting a business most of us find abhorrent.
First, advocates of U.S. horse slaughter—the very people who insist they care about shortening the distance a horse travels for slaughter—opposed legislation restricting the distance horses could travel in the aftermath of the American closings. Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state representative and the most vocal proponent of reopening slaughterhouses (they call her “Slaughterhouse Sue”), wrote in 2009 that, “A key early initiative is to muster resources to oppose bills now pending in Congress that would ban the transportation of horses to other countries for the purpose of slaughter.” The intent here was as simple as it was sinister: to normalize long horse hauls to foreign soil and then highlight its inherent cruelty, thereby buttressing the case for a more “humane” local option.
Second, the claim that Mexican slaughterhouses are comparatively inhumane is equally problematic. Plants where U.S. horses have been slaughtered in Mexico are owned by the same European Union companies that once owned horse slaughterhouses in the United States. Supporters of local slaughter suggest that U.S. horses are being killed in an especially cruel and unregulated manner in Mexican-owned slaughterhouses, mainly by stabbing them in the spine. In fact, EU companies deploy standard procedures, using (most notably) captive bolt guns to stun horses before bleeding and processing them, just as they do in Europe and once did in the U.S. Ironically, the only documented cases we have of horse slaughterhouse cruelty and abuse come from the U.S. (back when slaughterhouses were legal).
Third, advocates of U.S. horse slaughter insist that, without the reinstitution of slaughter at home, an unmanageable number of horses will continue to suffer the indignities described above. But the numbers don’t support this claim. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. horses die of natural causes or are euthanized at home. Bill Bullard, a California state representative and supporter of U.S. horse slaughter, says that the horse industry is desperate for “a way to dispose of our old, diseased, lame horses.” In fact, that problem has already been solved for the overwhelming majority of horses. They die the way our pets die—more often than not with quiet dignity.
Duplicity is one thing. But the upshot of this manufactured crisis is even worse: an impending public health disaster of global proportions. What supporters of U.S. slaughter never tell us is that the 150,000 or so U.S. horses that are annually slaughtered for export are bombarded daily with a hit list of toxic drugs, most notably phenylbutazone (“bute”), a common painkiller. While innocuous for horses, bute can cause, even in trace doses, aplastic anemia, agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia, leucopenia, pancytopenia, and hemolytic anemia in humans. Eating U.S. horses, according to Tufts Veterinary professor Nicolas Dodman, “is about as healthful as food contaminated with DDT.” The USDA currently has no program to regulate these substances.
In other words, lost in all the discussions about horse slaughter and horsemeat is a fundamental point: horses are not raised for food. They are, in essence, an industrial product. For Americans to recycle them into an edible but toxic by-product for foreigners to eat, doing so with taxpayer dollars and through an underfunded USDA, would be bad for everyone involved, most notably the 150,00 horses a year who’d be much better off not being used as Trojan horses to hide the profits of those who claim to care about them.