The discovery in Europe of horse meat disguised as beef has intensified the debate over the slaughter of horses for food. Oklahoma just voted to allow it, but there are no federal inspectors.
The fight over using horses for food grew louder Tuesday when the Oklahoma Legislature voted to allow the operation of horse slaughterhouses.
The issue has taken on greater urgency since horse meat appeared, disguised as beef, in European outposts of Burger King and other restaurants there.
A USA TODAY analysis found that as much as 17% of the horse meat in Europe originated in the United States, even though no horse meat is legally produced here. Unwanted horses are shipped to Canada and Mexico, where they are slaughtered for meat.
Horse meat has been illegal since Congress ended U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections in 2006 at the urging of animal rights activists. That funding prohibition expired in 2011, but horses cannot legally be slaughtered for food because the USDA no longer has trained inspectors.
A bill now in Congress would make it illegal to slaughter horses for food or to ship them out of the country for slaughter. Last year, 166,572 U.S. horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered for food, according to USDA and Agriculture Canada figures.
“Horses have been raised for sport, transport, security and companionship, but never for slaughter and consumption,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who introduced the legislation. “There are very few regulations on the drugs given to horses, and we cannot risk introducing dangerously toxic meat into our food supply here at home or abroad. We must stop the slaughter of these beloved animals and protect the public’s health.”
The Oklahoma action ends the state’s 50-year ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption. Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has said she is inclined to sign the bill.
No one in Oklahoma has applied for permission to slaughter horses, and even with the governor’s signature, horse slaughter couldn’t take place without USDA oversight.
State Rep. Skye McNiel, a Republican, said in an e-mail that she introduced the bill as “a much more humane way to treat these animals, to manage the population and to control the neglect that we are seeing when irresponsible owners decide they can no longer take care of their horses.”
Four states — California, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas — ban horse slaughter.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued a statement from Nancy Perry, senior vice president for government relations, expressing disappointment “that the Oklahoma legislature would welcome the grisly and predatory horse slaughter industry.”
“The ill-advised legislative gutting of Oklahoma’s law against the sale of horse meat for human consumption could not be more poorly timed, given the strong opposition from the majority of Oklahoma voters and the now well-documented dangers of toxic horse meat for consumers,” she said.
Europeans consumed 119,000 tons of horse meat in 2012, of which 21,250 tons came from U.S. horses slaughtered in Mexico and Canada, according to Keith Dane, director of equine protection with the Humane Society of the United States.
Animal rights groups and horse fanciers argue that horses have never been raised for meat in the United States and that, because they are routinely given drugs such as wormers and phenylbutazone for inflammation, their flesh is unhealthy for people to eat.
“American horses aren’t raised for food, they’re raised for pleasure and competition,” said Stephanie Twining, of the Humane Society of the United States. “In the United States we think of horses as pets and racehorses and celebrities.”
Janine Jacques, of the Equine Rescue Network in Newton, Mass., tries to find homes for unwanted horses, asks, “What are we going to do with 160,000 unwanted horses in the United States?”
Jacques, who teaches equine management at Mount Ida College in Newton, thinks slaughter plants are necessary but that more could be done to reduce the number of animals sent to them. She said, “If we don’t have slaughter as an option, you’re going to see a lot more abused and abandoned horses.”