Friend or Food? Horse Slaughter in the U.S. Legal Again

A meat manufacturer is suing the federal government to allow horse slaughter in the U.S. But is America ready to eat horsemeat?
Many Americans consider horses companions. Can we change the way we think about them, and more importantly, should we? (Photo: Gary Conner/Getty Images)
Dec 29, 2012· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Horsemeat is a touchy subject. Stateside, some people are mortified by the thought of eating what they call a companion animal, while others find that attitude insulting to the foreign cultures that proudly carry the meat on their traditional menus. Adding to an already complex problem, U.S. horsemeat in particular currently carries some unsettling food safety issues. Nonetheless, a recent lawsuit may lay the foundation for a revitalized horse slaughtering industry. But whether or not that’s a good thing is at the center of a serious debate.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Valley Meat Company owner, Rick de los Santos, sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week for obstructing the reopening of his equine slaughter facility.

Though a five-year ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. was quietly lifted by President Obama last year, not a single slaughterhouse has opened since then. The reason? According to de los Santos, it’s because the USDA has been dragging its feet when it comes to performing the required inspection necessary to open a plant.

The meat company owner reports that after he’d dropped over $100,000 to bring his equine kill facility up to code and applied for the necessary permits to operate it, he was told the inspection would never happen.

He tells the Times, “…the government comes back and tells me, ‘We can’t give you the permits. This horse issue has turned into a political game.’

“So what else do you do? I figured it was time to go to court.”

MORE: Under Siege: Wild Horses and the Federal Lands They Live On

In his defense, de los Santos’ facility may serve as an antidote to the current system of horse slaughter in the U.S., which is notoriously brutal. Without any stateside slaughterhouses, horses are shipped en masse thousands of miles away, to either Canada or Mexico, where they’re often slaughtered in painful fashion. In the Valley Meat Company’s New Mexico plant, the need for prolonged travel would be thwarted for some and the kill process would cause the animals less pain.

De los Santos told ABC News that the impetus for the horse facility began last year; his cattle-slaughtering business dwindled after the drought forced most ranchers to sell off their herds. At the time, the feds told the meat company owner he could slaughter horses, but only if he stopped cattle production completely, and revamped his facility, making sure to arm it with a kill system that was as quick and as painless as possible. He did. And now his facility, which he estimates could provide jobs for over 100 people, stands quiet and unused.

But equine advocates Nevada Horse Power told the Times they think that’s for the best. Horses in the U.S. are not bred to become food for people. Instead, they’re sold to slaughterhouses after they’ve been raised as pets, or as workers, so they’re pumped full of medicines that shouldn’t be ingested by human beings. These include horse medicines like de-wormers and anti-inflammatories. Many of the animals are cast-offs from the racing industry, so they’re especially ripe with steroids, anti-coagulants, and other animal medications that have known carcinogenic effects in people.

It’s not clear if de los Santos was prepared to address that issue, or if the USDA had even told him that American-raised horsemeat carries that risk.

The federal agency has until January 13 to respond to his lawsuit. But in the meantime, it’s clear that this is about more than our individual protein preferences. It’s about a government that made empty promises to a business owner fighting to hold onto his livelihood; and a country that on the one hand balks at the thought of eating horses, but on the other, has done almost nothing to protect them from inhumane treatment.

How do you feel about horse slaughter in the U.S.? Would you eat horsemeat? Let us know what you think in the Comments.