The US House Appropriations Committee has just voted to lift the ban on funding for federal inspections for horse slaughter, thus potentially paving the way for new US equine abattoirs to open up. I wrote extensively about the history of horsemeat in the USA in The Age of the Horse in order to try to explain how the ban came about in the first place. I’ve also written a brief summary for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog (here).
Many are arguing that slaughter is good for the horse population as a whole, but unfortunately their arguments don’t work. The “greater welfare” argument has been part of the pro-hippophagy movement since the nineteenth century, but because of horsemeat’s status in the West and the way in which the meat industry in general has developed, it just doesn’t add up. Here’s why:
“Horse slaughter in the USA is more humane than horse slaughter in Mexico or Canada”
Well, no. The 2006/7 bans and the earlier ban in California came about in part because conditions were so bad in US slaughter plants and in transportation to those plants.
“At least the horses won’t have to travel so far”
Again, no. Before the ban horses were still shipped to Canada and Mexico. Furthermore, there were only three plants in the USA, which in itself involved long drives for many slaughter-bound horses. Why so few plants? Look at the meat industry in general – there’s a trend over a century long to reduce the number of processing locations.
“Horse slaughter increases the value of horses, leading to better conditions”
Nope. One of the reasons the US horsemeat business functioned was that the raw material was so cheap. The expense of breeding and raising the animals was undertaken by owners, not the horsemeat industry, who were able to snap up neglected, injured or sick horses at low prices at public auctions. In recent years, the horses shipped to Canada and Mexico for meat have also included the neglected, injured and sick. At an auction run and frequented by kill buyers in July 2014, I saw a starved horse and one with an open wound with what looked like bone sticking out of it. Not uncommon, according to those who observe auctions regularly.
The UK has legal and pretty highly regulated horse slaughter thanks to EU rules. This has not stopped a) a massive, Europe-wide scandal in which horsemeat was passed off as beef, b) the exposure of false paperwork in slaughter-bound horses, c) horses that have been treated with drugs that should be banned from the food chain still making it into the food chain, d) record numbers of abandoned and neglected horses that have to be taken in by charities or local authorities – it’s often the “meat herds” that are kept in the worst conditions – and e) exposés of abuse in equine abattoirs. Oh, and we still have “worthless” horses and ponies, too.
Maybe farmers who raise horses solely for meat and follow the same sort of strict conditions applied to cattle or sheep get it right. But for horses that are dual purpose, slaughter is touted as a way of cleaning up waste material from a leisure riding industry, and this leads to loop holes and the problems described above.
UNFORTUNATE UPDATE 17/7/2017: Well, another horsemeat scandal in Europe busted wide open. Sixty-six arrested after police across Europe worked together to uncover an operation slaughtering horses that were unfit for human consumption. The horses had been treated with medication unsuitable for meat animals, were elderly or injured. The documentation had been tampered with and it looks like microchips were cut out of horses’ necks.
“Once the industry starts making money, things will improve”
Before the effective ban in the USA, Europe still bought American horsemeat. However, in recent years the EU has banned imports of horsemeat from Mexico due to doubts about its safety and welfare conditions. It has also asked Canadian plants to keep horses for six months prior to slaughter to ensure that they are free of drug residue. If you really are doing horsecare right, that’s six months of good grazing conditions and fodder, hoofcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment – and suddenly your horsemeat is not so cheap. If you sent your horse to slaughter because it was in constant pain, now your horse has to go without painkillers for six months. That, surely, was not the point of sending it to slaughter in the first place…
Maybe other overseas markets are less fussy. But “take our meat, it’s from randomly sourced, potentially diseased and contaminated animals” is really not a lasting selling point.
“It will create jobs”
Most people assume that horse slaughter was banned because Americans were oversensitive about horses being eaten. There were actually two prongs to the cessation – one was the effective federal block caused by suspending the funding for inspections. The other was at state level – Texas and Illinois residents were deeply unhappy about practices and lack of local contributions from the three surviving slaughter houses. They didn’t want them in their towns. When the ban was lifted a few years ago, many new slaughter plants were proposed and all were blocked locally by residents.
The jobs? Again, look at the meat industry in general in America. This is not a money pot that will Make America Great Again. It’s an industry that consumes low-paid, easily disposible migrant workers. And again, according to testimony gathered by Cathleen Doyle in California in the late 1990s, it was very hard for kill buyers to make money even with a legal horse slaughter industry in place.
“But if it’s well regulated, it’ll be OK”
The current US administration is laying waste to its budget. It is proposing stripping funding from things that no one thought would ever be defunded. Do you really think it’s going to splash out adequate cash to regulate a business that’s scattered (via auctions) in small locations across America, that’s part of a wider equine industry that’s so underregulated that we don’t even know how many horses there are in the country, that’s full of loop holes and entry points, and producing goods only for an overseas market? And a massively unpopular industry at that? To a higher standard that the EU? I don’t think so.
In over a decade of researching the history of horsemeat (I guess we all need hobbies), it’s become clear to me that there are two inherent scandals that recur over centuries of practice in the West:
1) That horsemeat gets passed off as beef, venison, or, in one case, foie gras.
2) That the horses killed for meat make for unwholesome eating either because they’re treated with medications, are sick, are elderly, injured or otherwise less than enticing as a food stuff.
I could find you umpteen historical instances of both of these scandals. Then there’s the recurring welfare issue of the process itself. Europe has been campaigning for over a century to stop the long distance transport of horses for slaughter and progress is minute, even in what must be one of the most animal-friendly legislations in the world and history, and long before the “sausage boats” to Belgium began, there were knackers yards full of starving horses. We’re not learning anything much from history.