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Fillet of Flicka

Could eating horse meat help America's equine overpopulation problem?
Photo: LilyyyB via Flickr
Horse Meat

At any moment, there are more than 100,000 homeless horses in America—both neglected domestic animals and wild creatures without rangelands for whatever reason. Experts are always floating ideas for what to do with them, ranging from aggressive relocation projects to mass euthanasia. Yet no existing programs seem capable of handling the nation's excess horse problem. There just aren't enough homes, and mass euthanasia would be logistically impractical. This equine glut has led a few folks to propose a plan that may seem shocking to some Americans: Promote eating horses.

This proposal seems logical on its face. But anti-slaughter activists oppose it, arguing that horse meat cannot be produced safely for human consumption or humanely in the U.S. This seems odd as many Asian and European peoples often eat horse meat. It's beloved by some as a tasty meat, lower in fat and higher in protein than beef. Horse meat used to be big in America as well—a 1951 Time magazine piece hailed it as a major part of Oregonian cuisine. This precedent raises questions as to whether horse meat really is dangerous—and if so, whether it's possible to make it safely (and humanely) for human consumption.

Activists base their safety case on the fact that many horses (especially racehorses) in America are at some point treated with drugs approved for veterinary uses but not for human consumption by the FDA. "Many of the[se] substances . . . carry health risks for people consuming meat contaminated with them" Nicholas H. Dodman, a professor of veterinary sciences at Tufts University and anti-slaughter proponent, says. Usually drugs clear a horse's system in due time. But the FDA lacks protocols for vetting horse meat safety; it's hard to pin down (and easy to falsify) a horse's medical history, making it difficult to tell if a drug's half-life has elapsed, and some substances may have longer-term effects on horse meat with unclear implications for human health. These concerns hold valid for wild horses, too: Their populations have exploded, pushing tens of thousands of horses into federal holding facilities, where they may undergo medical treatment with drugs unfit for the food chain. We have to say "may undergo," because no one is quite sure what happens to the horses inside these faculties—a shadiness that is itself cause enough for concern.

This contamination risk led the European Union to warn against consuming American horse meat in 2012 and to ban horse meat from Mexico, which does most of our horse slaughters, in 2015.

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Mexico handles the killings for the U.S. because the last two horse slaughterhouses in America closed in 2007 when Congress defunded FDA inspections for such facilities. This defunding lapsed in 2011, allowing a New Mexico firm to try to open a new slaughterhouse. But that effort got tied up in the courts, where it died this February. As a result, in 2014 alone, 146,548 American horses went to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico (80 percent to the latter). These nations ostensibly inspect the horses for safety, but many believe their processes are lax at best.

Beyond these health concerns, experts who oppose killing horses also argue that horse biology causes them to panic in slaughterhouses, jerking away from bolt guns unlike other relatively calm herd animals we regularly kill, which ultimately means they suffer fearful and cruel deaths.

Yet experts agree that it's easy to overcome these concerns. In Europe, Dodman explains, horses have passports with all their medical records, which helps cut down on the accidental use of contaminated horses. For-consumption herds make it easy to regulate against the use of any truly concerning drugs that'll wind up in our food chain. As for humane slaughter, horse experts like Temple Grandin argue that it's possible as long as facilities are built and administered under well-regulated guidelines. This all suggests that American horse meat could be safely and humanely produced, if we had herds bred for consumption and solid regulatory systems.

That solution is incredibly unlikely to be implemented in America though. We've definitively decided that horses are pets, not food. We get so passionate about horses that when restaurants here try to serve them, they get bomb threats. You can imagine that trying to raise a for-consumption herd would likewise be met with anger. (This lack of demand, Dodman suggests, likely means that even if we made eating horses totally legal in America, it wouldn't change the total number of American horses slaughtered, leaving unwanted horse populations practically unaffected.) Rather than move for better regulation on treatments or slaughter facilities, national legislators are trying to ban the export of horses for slaughter and consumption, preventing them from even reaching Canada or Mexico. Some state legislators have even codified taboos locally, making it illegal to slaughter or sell horse meat for consumption under any conditions.

All of that's to say that horse meat isn't inherently inhumane or dangerous. But it is, and probably always will be in the U.S., because we can't wrap our heads around the idea of horses as meat. Americans with a taste for equine eats would be better served turning to well-regulated European markets for a nice fillet of Flicka. But they'd be best advised to not talk about their tastes too much, as that poses its own danger in our horse-loving culture.

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