No 'quick start' to resume horse slaughter in the US

by Bryan Salvage
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In recent weeks, coverage of the growing horse-meat scandal in Europe (where horse meat was found in products labeled as beef in several countries, and most recently in Portugal) has been burning up the wires globally. Since the story broke, scores of news reports have been posted daily on this topic.

Meanwhile, another horse meat-related story has been heating up here in the US. Earlier this week, legislators in Oklahoma appeared to be ready to lift a ban on horse slaughter for commercial purposes. Oklahoma’s state senate and house chambers approved two bills that would end horse- slaughter ban while prohibiting horse meat sales for human consumption in the state.

The last US horse slaughterhouse was DeKalb, Ill.-based Cavel International, which closed in 2007 after Congress eliminated funding for horse-meat inspections. This action ended horse slaughter in the US. Animal activists have since vowed to do whatever it takes to keep this ban in place. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s new Senate Bill 375 allows horse meat to be exported. House Bill 1999 would allow horse slaughter but maintain an existing ban on domestic sales of horse meat. Exported products would be labeled as horse meat. SB-375 passed the state senate by a vote of 38-6, and HB-1999 passed the House by a vote of 82-14.

Horse meat is not a mainstay in the US. Until 2007, a few horse-meat slaughterhouses remained in the US. Horse meat produced in this country was either sold to zoos to feed their carnivores or exported for human consumption. Horse meat is largely consumed primarily in Central Asia, parts of Europe and South America. According to one source, the top-eight countries consume about 4.7 million horses a year. In 2005, the top horse-meat consuming countries were China (421,000 tonnes), Mexico, Russia, Italy, and Kazakhstan (54,000 tonnes). In 2010, Mexico produced 140,000 tonnes or horse meat; China, 126,000 tonnes; and Kazakhstan, 114,000 tonnes.

Although animal activists insist the horse-slaughter process is inhumane, most industrialized countries harvesting horses for food slaughter them the same way cattle are slaughtered. The animals are stunned with a captive-bolt gun, stuck, bled and then fabricated. In non-industrialized countries, horses and other meat animals are slaughtered individually outdoors on demand.

But on Nov. 18, 2011, the horse-meat inspection ban for meat was lifted as part of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012. Since then, news stories have popped up in various parts of the US showing renewed interest in building horse slaughter and fabrication plants once again in this country.

Yes, horses are beautiful, intelligent animals that are loved as companions and revered as sporting animals by millions of folks in many places throughout the world. But horse meat is also still in demand by many consumers in areas of the world.

Taking a closer look at horse meat as a food for humans, experts explain these animals are relatively poor converters of grass and grain to meat compared to cattle. And horses are not really bred or raised for their meat. Beef strip steak has slightly less calories than horse meat. While both meats also have very similar amounts of fat, cholesterol and protein when lean cuts are compared, horse meat features double the iron of beef, NutritionData relays. Horse meat also contains a lot more vitamin B12 (50 percent vs. 21 percent DV), but less B6, niacin and folate. And the omega-3 fatty acid concentration in horse meat is 360 mg (per 100 grams) versus 21 mg in strip steak.

When it comes to taste, horse meat reportedly tastes a little sweet and a little gamey — like a melding of beef and venison, Discovery News claims. Horse meat is also very versatile so it lends itself to a variety of preparations and dishes.

Many folks don’t like the idea of animals considered as companions or pets to be eaten, but horses aren’t the only such animals eaten by humans. Dog meat is eaten in China, Viet Nam, South Korea and Arctic regions. Cat meat is eaten in Southern China and Peru. Even Guinea pig meat is a delicacy for some folks in the Andes. So, what are companies and pets to some are food to others.

Although animal activists persist that horse slaughter ban should remain in place in the US because it is inhumane, it appears the horse-slaughter ban in the US has resulted in inhumane treatment of horses. The US Government Accountability Office released a report back in June 2011 titled Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter. The report linked the horse-slaughter ban in the US to an upswing in the number of abandoned horses, a drop in prices for some horses and a big increase in exports of horses for slaughter.

“Horse welfare in the US has generally declined since 2007, as evidenced by a reported increase in horse abandonments and an increase in investigations for horse abuse and neglect,”' the report claims. “The extent of the decline is unknown due to a lack of comprehensive, national data, but state officials attributed the decline in horse welfare to many factors, but primarily to the cessation of domestic slaughter and the US economic downturn. Abandoned, abused, and neglected horses present challenges for state and local governments, tribes and animal-welfare organizations.”

Horse-meat proponents further claim by not allowing horse slaughter in the US for meat, live horses in this country must be transported very long distances to Mexico or Canada for harvesting, which is cruel for those animals being transported the farthest.

In an attempt to get an idea on when horse slaughter may start up again in the US, I contacted a reputable source to get an update on the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service rules for the slaughter and processing of horses for meat in the US and to see if current FSIS inspectors are adequately trained to oversee such activities. I was informed the testing and residue-sampling protocols, as well as procedures, regarding equine slaughter are still being developed by the agency.

What’s more, due to the suspension of equine processing in recent years, FSIS inspectors would need to undergo some additional, if not comprehensive, new training on the entire process. At this point, it’s also not clear how many FSIS inspectors with experience in equine inspection in the US are still in the employ of the agency. So, even if horse-slaughter facilities are built in the near future — just when horse slaughter inspection can resume again in the US remains questionable.

But like it or not — as long as there’s demand for horse meat in the world, there will be horse-slaughtering and packing facilities…and if not in the US, they will operate elsewhere. And don’t expect demand for horse meat to disappear any time soon in the near future.

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