No More Horsing Around
The horse meat scandals continue to make headline news. The most recent, and most impressively researched, piece came out last week from Vickery Eckhoff, who published her findings in Newsweek‘s “The Daily Beast.”
The gist of Eckhoff’s argument is that any move toward supporting the production of horse flesh for human consumption is a move toward a public health nightmare. She lists the drugs that horses culled for slaughter routinely take and then she highlights how dangerous these drugs are for human consumption. Few journalists who have covered this story have stressed this essential angle. In fact, Eckhoff and I have been the only ones to do so (and I only did so at her prompting), which is all very strange given the coverage typically lavished on e. coli and mad cow disease and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Horses seem to inspire a “isn’t that weird?” response rather than a critical look at the public health implications of eating them.
I recently spoke with Eckhoff about this issue, her coverage of it, and the response to her article. Eckhoff is concerned about how we treat all animals. Her emphasis on horses, however, is driven more by a concern for public safety than an overt animal rights perspective. This is not to say that she eschews such an agenda. It’s just to stress that her work on horse slaughter is intended to do something different than stress the cruelty of slaughter (which she takes as a given). It aims to highlight the fact that there are forces in the Unites States colluding to legalize horse slaughterhouses and, as her work suggests, they must be stopped. As a result, the issue of horse meat is, she rightly argues, a matter requiring an explicit and unique political response. In this respect, horses are different than pigs, cows, and chickens. They cannot currently be slaughtered for consumption. And this difference matters in the context of the reality of industrial animal production.
To the extent that they’ve followed Eckhoff, some animal rights activists have not been as supportive as they should of her horse coverage. There’s a knee-jerk tendency among some animal rights critics to sternly warn that we need to worry about all animals, and not just one species. This is an important point. But it can be used like a gavel to warn anyone who chooses to focus on a single species to watch her step, even if, as Eckhoff shows, there is clear justification—in this case the demand for a unique political response—to highlight the exploitation of one species over another. We cannot simply write article after after article arguing that it is always wrong to unnecessarily exploit all animals. To focus on a single species, or a single case, is not to deny the legitimacy of other cases. Most people get this, I know. But the fact that Eckhoff got even a little flak over the issue bothers me.
The genuinely good news that I learned from Echkoff is that—if her public health message sticks here in the United States—there is virtually no way that we could end up with a horse meat industry, which is something several interest groups are trying to establish (only they prefer to call it the “cheval” industry). The reason is this: all horses that would be slaughtered would be surplus and cast-off horses from the racing/service industry, and all those horses are inundated with drugs, including, most notably, clenbuterol. With those horses off limits for human consumption, it might be natural to think some ranchers would choose to raise horses for the sole purpose of food. But as Echkoff—who writes regularly for Forbes—reminded me, this would never happen because horses do not gain weight fast enough to warrant raising them for slaughter. It’s not economically viable. The only way this industry would “work” is if producers used “refuge” horses.
And as Eckoff has heroically shown, this option is politically not feasible so long as activists speak up—and, yes, about only one species and one special alone: horses.
Update: a link to a press release about an upcoming radio interview with Eckhoff.
Tomorrow: animal rights infiltrators