Legal or Not, Will Americans Ever Buy Horse Meat?

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Every week, it seems, another restaurant, supermarket chain, or Swedish furniture maker announces that instead of feeding its customers beef, they — whoops! — accidentally served horse meat. Most Americans, of course, react with revulsion at the very thought. But that’s not stopping advocates from trying to open the first horse meat processing facility to operate in the U.S. in years.

For weeks, horse meat has been making unwanted appearances in the European food system. It’s been detected in Ikea meatballs. It’s been found in frozen lasagna in Italy. It’s shown up in frozen beef patties at British supermarkets.

Even though the problem hasn’t been detected in the U.S., the widening scandal has caused outrage and revulsion among Americans, who haven’t practiced hippophagy — the practice of eating horse flesh — on a regular basis for decades. U.S. horse meat consumption briefly peaked during World War II, when more conventional meats like beef were rationed, says Andy Smith, a culinary historian at the New School. But within a few decades, Americans had almost entirely forsworn the practice. Why? The animal rights movement played a role. More significantly, though, we had anthropomorphized horses, just as we had our other household pets: Horses weren’t livestock; they were our friends.

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Even so, we were still sending horses to domestic slaughterhouses until the middle of the last decade. But after sustained pressure from animal rights advocates — Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says that meat processing plants often jammed horses into cattle trucks and failed to limit aggression between the animals — Congress shut down the industry in 2005 by de-funding inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No inspections, no legal slaughterhouses. By 2007, domestic horse meat was essentially non-existent.

The legislative pendulum seems to have swung back again, however, apparently influenced by people like Dave Duquette, the president of a non-profit organization called United Horsemen. He argues that since U.S. slaughterhouses were shut down in 2005, neglect and abuse of horses has skyrocketed. Owners don’t know what to do with older horses that can become difficult to care for. Indian reservations are being overrun by feral horses, he says. And that increased supply of horses has dramatically driven down their price. Duquette says that horses that used to sell for $1,200 to $1,500 now go for as little as $50, further contributing to their neglect. So Duquette says he’s trying to get slaughterhouses to reopen in the U.S. to reduce the animal’s population and increase their value and welfare.

“We’ve got 10 million horses in the United States, domestic horses,” says Duquette. “And 80% of those fall into the category of the backyard hobby horsemen, the ones who just go out and trail ride a bit. And they went from owning an asset to owning a liability.”

The Humane Society’s Pacelle responds that the problem of horse overpopulation is a fairy tale. More U.S. horses are being slaughtered today than in the past, he says; they’re just being sent to facilities in Canada and Mexico rather than in the U.S. Indeed, according to U.S.D.A. numbers compiled by the Humane Society, about 167,000 American horses were slaughtered by our two North American neighbors in 2012, more than during any year when it was legal to slaughter them in the U.S.

In any case, in 2011, Congress again made it possible to slaughter horses in the U.S. — at least in theory. Such facilities need to be approved and inspected by the U.S.D.A., and that has yet to happen. The U.S.D.A. says two processing facilities — one in New Mexico and another in Missouri — have applied for a grant of inspection from the department. The New York Times reported Thursday that the proposed plant in New Mexico, owned by Valley Meat Company, may be approved to open within the next two months. Sequestration, however, may cut into the U.S.D.A.’s food safety budget, delaying these inspections indefinitely. Even if the funding is available, however, the U.S.D.A. would face the fresh challenge of testing for a host of new drugs, including anti-inflammatory medications that make horse meat unfit for human consumption.

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The question remains, however: Would Americans ever again be interested in eating horse meat? Duquette claims domestic demand does exist. “We’ve been contacted by so many people that want horse meat as soon as it’s available,” says Duquette. “I think there’s a small group of people that might be outraged. But there’s plenty of demand, and plenty of demand overseas.”

It’s true that a number of European countries eat horse meat regularly and would likely buy American exports of the product. But a recent poll commissioned by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that 80% of Americans oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

And ultimately it’s hard to see Americans in large numbers overcoming their disinclination to eat a species that plays such an important role in the mythology of their country — and in their personal lives. As food historian Smith puts it: “What’s wrong with eating cats and dogs? Well, they’re members of our family. And that’s how many people feel about horses.”