Trojan Horse Slaughter

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.


The Govenrment Accountability Office would suggest that the numbers clearly show an increase of neglect and abandonment since horse slaughter was banned in 2007.

US slaughter is scrutinized thoroughly while other countries have less stringent animal welfare and food safety standards. The author of this piece cites food safety as a major drawback to horse slaughter (due to drug residues), yet seems comfortable with placing the burden of food safety inspections on much less competent agencies. It is also important to note that plant ownership has little to do with food safety. It is regulated by the government as it is considered a public good. Therefore, I submit that the "impending health disaster of global proportions" only stregthens the argument for Domestic Slaughter. If regulated, the drug residues the author cites would likely be detected and removed from the food chain before being consumed. I would feel much more comfortable if the US government was assuring me of this rather than the Mexican government.

To disagree with slaughtering horses on an ethical basis is fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But to suggest that their is science based evidence not to support horse slaughter in the US is a bit of a stretch.


Vickery Eckhoff

Exactly how many abandoned horses are listed in the GAO report, cwb?

You know, I asked Rep. Skye McNiel the same question: how many abandoned horses in Oklahoma. You know what she said?

Nothing. Because no data exists.

Of course, you are welcome to try and provide some. Go ahead: try.


This question is addressed very succinctly on the report summary. I offer once again the link I posted above. Furthermore, there are many things not quantified by data. This does not make them any less real.

Seminymous Coward

USDA inspections do not constitute financial support by any sane definition. Regulatory oversight is hardly a benefit to a business. Even if it were, charging annually for licensing neatly solves that supposed problem.

Starting a USDA program to regulate drugs given to animals before they enter the food supply sounds like a good idea. Oh, wait, look it does have such an order for cattle: . I guess that problem is about 5 bureaucrat's signatures from solved for horses, too.

It's fine if you want to object to slaughtering horses for meat because of some squeamishness, but dressing it up with the other objections is just adding noise.

Seminymous Coward

Actually, I missed a bit of that order I linked before: "Use in horses is limited to use in horses not intended for food. There are currently no approved uses of phenylbutazone in food-producing animals."


like a dog or a cat, spade or euthanize them? are we that greedy? if so, open cat and dog slaughter as they eat them there to and its the same problem, hypocrites!

Ileen Murphy

Yes, why not. Why not raise every animal known to mankind for food. To make our country's standards the same as China or other countries that skin cats and dogs for fur and for food would be an appalling step backwards. We are talking about animals with feelings and intellect. To raise animals for food would mean factory-like farming. Keeping these animals from birth until it's time to slaughter them would entail much cruelty. This is unacceptable in a civilized society. Factory-farming has been shown to endanger the environment. It should be abolished. To think of letting this happen to horses, which are not considered food, is unspeakably revolting.

Enter your name...

Anyone else struck by the irony of a Freakonomics post that opposes eating horse meat because "most of us" (by which he means "Americans, but none of the millions of people who think eating horse is the same as eating beef or pork or lamb") find it abhorrent, when we're supposed to all agree to let poor people sell their kidneys to rich people even though nearly every culture in the world finds it abhorrent?

Matt Byrne

First and foremost, "Bute" is only dangerous in huge doses:

Secondly "dying with quiet dignity" usually doesn't involve starvation. Also, instances of horse abuse increased by 60% after the 2007 ban on horse slaughter:

Vickery Eckhoff

As the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service stated back in 2007, “phenylbutazone is considered to be one of the most toxic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It is not approved for use in food animals and there are no regulatory limits, such as acceptable daily intake or safe concentration for meat, established by the Food and Drug Administration. Therefore, the presence of any amount of phenylbutazone in food animal tissue will be considered a violation and likely to be unsafe for human consumption.”

Then again, horses take dozens upon dozens of other drugs, that are not tested for. Some are known carcinogens, as bute is. Some require protective mask and rubber gloves to those administering. The drugs can cause cancer, miscarriages, breast development in men, and a host of other illnesses.

Because they are banned in animals slaughtered for meat, and are not in human use, no safe levels or withdrawal times are met.

But sure, knock yourself out. Buy yourself a racetrack reject, shoot it yourself, put the meat in the freezer and eat yourself silly.

Just don't sell it to the public.

And please don't quote CNN on this issue. It doesn't know a damn thing.


Barbara Leonard

Thank you for this very truthful and well-researched article. US taxpayers want their food supply safe (which will NOT happen if US slaughterhouses are opened.....thanks to unethical behavior by some food companies, the US may already be eating tainted meat with horsemeat being mixed in with beef) and we do not want our tax dollars spent on USDA inspectors at foreign owned horse slaughter plants.

Jo-Claire Corcoran

First we don't raise our horses for food in this country, under food safety guidelines. Therefore horses are given medications which ate banned from use in any food animal at any time in their life. To export a product we must inspect to the regulations of the country receiving the meat. The largest consumer of US horse meat is the EU and our horses do not meet their new regulations bring implemented this year.


As a horse owner who has been following this situation, James misses the mark on many points. For the sake of brevity, I would just like to highlight the author's ulterior motives.

A quick google search for James McWilliams and you will be led to his blog where he writes about how veganism may cure cancer ( and the "blood lust" of hunters (

I respect his right to an opinion, but it is an issue to proclaim facts when one is clearly biased.


"...about as healthful as food contaminated with DDT."

Really bad analogy there, since DDT has little effect on humans.

Vickery Eckhoff


What harmful effects can DDT have on us?

Probable human carcinogen
Damages the liver
Temporarily damages the nervous system
Reduces reproductive success
Can cause liver cancer
Damages reproductive system
How are we exposed to DDT?

By eating contaminated fish and shellfish
Infants may be exposed through breast milk
By eating imported food directly exposed to DDT
By eating crops grown in contaminated soil

Lisa LeBlanc

As I understand it, the 2011 GAO report was riddled with inaccuracies, and seemed to have been published as a last act of desperation. Nearly every 'fact' was refuted, so while it looks pretty, it was an expensively produced waste of space.
But, anyways...
However you may feel about slaughtering horses for human consumption in THIS country, the fact remains that horses are not raised nor treated as food animals. Everything from painkillers to wormers and vaccines, flysprays, feed-through fly and mosquito control, even that nasty green liquid you squirt into the hoof to kill fungus becomes a part of that animal in some fashion.
WE DON'T RAISE THEM FOR FOOD. Unless your concern for humans stops at the abbatoir door, that is an immutable fact that cannot be ignored. Horses sent to slaughter literally become a mystery meat because that all-important step of 'raising' them covers every owner they've ever had, not some gentleman rancher who supported them from birth to sale. This isn't Belgium, where draft horses are ranch-raised specifically for food. We're a country, for the most part, that has chosen equines as a companion species, and their physical condition and appearance reflects that.
I've grown weary of twits who can justify horse murder with the idiocy that if you eat beef, chicken or pork, you can damn well eat horse because there's no difference. And that shows a level of ignorance and contempt for both horses and humans that is intolerable.


Dr. J

As a veterinarian, I would like to refer you to the American Association of Equine Practitioners position on the issue (

"Unwanted horses represent a group of horses within the domestic equine population that are no longer needed or useful, or their owners are no longer interested in or capable of providing financial or physical care. Many of these horses are infirm and some are dangerous. Currently, there is a lack of comprehensive information regarding the total number of unwanted horses in the U.S; however, it is widely believed that many unwanted horses are sent to a processing facility. Other horses are euthanized by a veterinarian and disposed of through rendering, and some less fortunate are abandoned and left to die of malnourishment and/or starvation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 102,260 horses were euthanized for processing in this country alone in 2006, the last year that the U.S. horse processing plants were open for an entire fiscal year. The total number of U.S. origin horses processed in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, increased from 138,206 in 2006 to 140,911 in 2007. Presently the processing plants are closed in the U.S. and the only option for many of today’s unwanted horses remains processing at a facility in Mexico or Canada. Since the 2007 U.S. plant closures, the number of horses being abused, neglected and abandoned, according to many reports, has increased. These numbers are supported by a report on horse welfare by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released on June 22, 2011."

And this is a group that would have the opposite financial motivation: losing several hundred dollars on each horse that was sent to slaughter instead of a veterinary euthanasia.


Lisa Benton

cwb... on your GAO report it also says:: Matters for Congressional Consideration
Matter: Congress may wish to consider instituting an explicit ban on the domestic slaughter of horses and export of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in foreign countries.

I am sick to death of hearing pro slaughter folks using the terms neglect and abandonment of horses, and this is why we need slaughter houses opened back up in America! When we all know since the closing of our slaughter plants in 2007 people can and still do send their horses to auction and many go right to Canada & Mexico for slaughter... , the opening up of slaughter plants on our grounds surely is not the answer!! How about it's damn time for some owner responsibly in this country and STOP the over breeding of horses!!