Posts Tagged ‘horse meat

Horse Meat in the Food Chain

» December 10th, 2015


Exotic game meat is a specialty food item that’s becoming increasingly less special—currently it’s a $39 billion a year industry. This might be great news for consumers with a taste for bear, yak, lion, or beaver (you can place an online order with a quick click), but it’s not so great in terms of knowing what’s in our food.

Exotic meats shipped globally have long had a reputation for being mislabeled (in some cases, almost 70 percent of the time) and, closer to home, a recent Chapman University study found that the problem was prevalent in the United States as well. More to the point—and of possible concern to those who aren’t even in the market for exotic meat—the study found that some imported game contained traces of something that’s illegal to produce and sell commercially in the U.S.: horse meat.

Exactly how horse meat gets mixed up with other meat (processed or exotic) is hard to say. There are multiple points where supply chains might cross and most of them are obscured by the intricately global nature of the trade. But one pipeline stands out as a perfectly plausible source. Notably, it begins and ends in the U.S.

Read more here.

Whose Horse Crisis?

» September 3rd, 2013

As I’ve reported here before, there are a lot of interest groups wanting us to start eating horses. Slaughterhouses are cool with it. The Navajo, who are actively rounding up wild horses to sell to slaughterhouses, are cool with it. And now Tobin Harshaw, of Bloomberg News, is cool with it. The headline to his recent piece reads, “Wild Horses: We’ll Eat them Someday.” Warning: you might think it’s from the Onion. But it’s not. It’s “real news.”

All this recent salivation over the prospect of domestic horse meat is being fueled by the claim that western lands are experiencing a “horse crisis.” That assertion recently gained traction when the University of Montana’s Robert A. Garrott published a paper suggesting that “We’ll end up like Australia,” overrun with wild horses. Garrott, whose numbers are being scrutinized, recommends contraceptive programs. But Harshaw has a different idea: “What we really need is to call in the foodies.”

Sure! Let’s eat our way to the other end of the “horse crisis”! After all, he explains, “When traces of horse meat were found in supermarket products in the U.K. in January, many consumers were appalled, but nobody got sick.” Ah, well that whet’s the appetite. His bizarre  justification continues: “Opponents say that butchering horses is worse for the environment than killing cows, with more offal and blood runoff. That may be true, but it seems manageable through engineering.” Yes! Engineering! We can engineer a bloodless slaughterhouse!

Oh and this:  ”Lifting the bans on slaughtering wild mustangs and introducing them into a well-supervised and humane slaughter program seems the logical way to stop the population explosion and ease the BLM’s cash crunch.” Hmm. So, let’s get everything straight: we’ll promote slaughter so the BLM can get back on it’s feet and continue to promote . . .  slaughter.

I wish I could say I was shocked by the stupidity of this piece, and I’m almost reluctant to bring it up and lend it more eyes on the page. But–and I know we know this–it’s important to appreciate how low the bar has been set when it comes to writing about animals in the popular media. This is Bloomberg News, after all, an otherwise reputable source of news that somehow let Harshaw end his piece with this question: “Would you rather have these creatures overwhelming their ecosystem and dying of starvation, or served as tartare with a quail egg at your corner brasserie?”

Is this guy serious?




GAO on Horse Abuse

» August 14th, 2013

A version of this piece ran a couple of days ago at Pacific Standard. It was picked up by Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish, last night. This story deserves to work its way up the journalistic food chain because it’s a vivid reminder about the corruption at the core of our political system, one that has little regard for animals but lot of love in its heart for unfettered corporate greed. I would like to thank Vickery Eckhoff and John Holland for their invaluable help on this issue. 

The vast majority of Americans—over 80 percent—oppose the idea of slaughtering horses in the United States. Not surprisingly, there was minimal public oppositionwhen, in 2007, Congress, citing rampant welfare abuse and safety violations, cut off funding for the USDA inspection of U.S. horse slaughterhouses. This decision effectively ended the business of slaughtering horses domestically.

In November 2011, however, an agriculture appropriations bill signed by Congress reinstated funding for inspection. The legislative path for states to reopen horse slaughterhouses is now clear. Today, with the domestic cattle market in a drought-induced tailspin, New Mexico, Missouri, Wyoming, Tennessee, Iowa, and Oklahoma are on the verge of sending horses it once sent to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses into the clutches of domestic abattoirs. Other states, seeking a way to capitalize on horses that have lost their value or can be bought cheaply at meat prices, are eager to follow. A New Mexico meat processing plant has even made arrangements with the Navajo Nation to corral wild horses in anticipation of the impending slaughter fest. All that’s holding this off for right now is a lawsuit from the Humane Society of the United States.

The pivotal piece of evidence that convinced Congress to change its mind on the matter of domestic horse slaughter was a GAO analysis published in June 2011(PDF). Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Representative Jack Kingston (R-Georgia) commissioned it. Titled, “Actions Needed to Address Unintended Consequences From Cessation of Domestic Slaughter,” the report found “a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007”—the year the plants were closed. The “unintended consequence” of closing horse slaughterhouses, the report explained, was an increase in the abuse of horses. Reinstating domestic slaughterhouses, it suggested, would diminish this rising problem of neglect among owners who neither wanted to keep their horses nor were willing to send them abroad for slaughter. This argument was one that the slaughter lobby has been making since slaughterhouse closings in 2007. Pro-slaughter advocates were more than pleased to hear the news.

Something about this report, however, seemed suspicious before it was even published. Charlie Stenholm, former Texas Congressman and now policy advisor to the D.C.-based law firm Olsson, Frank, and Weeda (which specializes in helping agribusiness negotiate federal red tape and recently hired an attorney who specializes in agricultural deals with Native Americans), told a conference of pro-slaughter interests in Las Vegas that the GAO report—which would not come out for another six months—contained very good news. Wyoming state rep. Sue Wallis, slaughter advocate extraordinaire, was evidently doing the same.

When the report officially dropped in June 2011, Stenholm and Wallace were proven correct. The Senate quickly wrote an appropriations bill removing the provision that defunded inspection. Because the House had an amendment preserving the language, the bill went to committee, where the vote was three to one in favor of restoring funding for domestic horse slaughterhouses. Those three votes came, alas, from Senators Kohl and Blunt and Representative Kingston.

All very fishy. But what really stinks about the GAO report is the math. Because national data is not available on reported horse abuse, the GAO went to six states and found—in the only case of hard numbers that it provides in the entire report—that “Colorado data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009.” Sounds pretty dramatic—until you recall that the slaughter ban passed in 2007. Not 2005. This matters.

As it turns out, horse abuse in Colorado did rise rapidly from 2005 through the end of 2007 (before the ban). But, starting in 2008, it declined precipitously through 2010 (a year for which numbers are available but the GAO tellingly admitted). The report thus made it seem as if abuse spiked after the closing of slaughterhouses. In fact, it continued for less than a year after the ban was instated and then declined rapidly.


Figure 1: Colorado Department of Agriculture data

It is further worth noting that the GAO had access to similar figures on horse abuse investigations from five other states—Illinois, Idaho, Georgia, Maine, and Oregon. The GAO’s decision not to include this information makes little sense unless it was deliberately trying to skew the picture of horse abuse in favor of pro-slaughter interests. To wit: Four states for which there are data show a dramatic decline in horse abuse after 2007 while one—Idaho—shows no movement one way or the other. Ignoring these figures, the GAO decided instead to focus on Colorado, evidently hoping nobody wouldnotice its creative presentation of the numbers.


Figure 2: Data from the agriculture departments of six states

Despite the report’s suggestion that the need for local slaughterhouses is an urgent matter, the GAO fails to note something quite extraordinary about the situation: Only about one percent of existing domestic horses are slaughtered every year. Ninety-two percent of that one percent, according to Temple Grandin, are healthy and devoid of behavioral problems. They’re bucking horses that won’t buck and racehorses that won’t win and quarter horses that nobody is buying from breeders because hay prices are too high. The only thing that’s urgent in this entire scenario is the desire to profit from sending these healthy horses to slaughter.

Horse abuse and neglect is a small problem that got smaller with the closure of slaughterhouses. The GAO—and the slaughter lobby it seems to represent—falsely presents it as a large problem getting larger. It wants us to envision a situation in which a recession and drought are overwhelming horse owners to the point that they’re neglecting sick and ailing horses en masse. Give them easy access to a domestic slaughterhouse, so goes the argument, and abuse will decline.

In fact, it is the exact opposite that’s true. Abuse went down after slaughterhouses were closed. All that domestic slaughterhouses would provide is an easy and profitable excuse to send many more healthy horses to a premature death for meat that we don’t even eat in this country. It’s all very sad logic upon which to rebuild an industry.

Gag: Foie Gras and Horse Meat

» December 3rd, 2011


Early last week Congress voted to lift the ban on horse slaughter in the United States. [] The act, buried in a much larger bill, has surely sent a gagillion horse-crazy people into deep depression. But the message I’m getting from many in the animal welfare world is that this decision was a good one for domestic horses. Turns out the most common destination for U. S. horses deemed ready for slaughter was Mexico, where slaughterhouse regulation is comparatively weak. Horses killed in the United States, I’m told, will assuredly be better off than if they’d been killed in Mexico. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, partially in deference to this logic, supported the measure.

This justification makes sense–at least as it’s framed. But what I find especially disturbing is the frame. Think about it: we’re up in arms over where an animal should be slaughtered rather than thinking seriously about whether or not we should be slaughtering it at all. Such an ethical by-pass is a stark reminder of how, in a food world defined by growing inquisitiveness, our thinking about the place of animals in our diet remains deeply impoverished. How can it be that, in a culinary culture that’s never been more aggressive about investigating food, we refuse to even remotely entertain the prospect that eating a horse might be a tragedy?

To expand the frame a bit, consider a duck. A significant number of ethically concerned consumers deem foie gras nothing short of a diabolical slice of suffering. Famous chefs have sworn off the stuff, and I wish I had a dime for every omnivore I know who passionately opposes foie gras on ethical grounds. What’s interesting is that this opinion prevails despite humanity’s relatively remote relationship with the duck–we’ve never worked or lived closely with these creatures. Their history is hardly intertwined with ours. Still, we’re vehement about protecting their livers. This position, of course, stands in stark contrast to the collective yawn we just let out upon hearing that the horse–an animal with whom we’ve plowed fields, colonized continents, waged war, and (with thankful rarity) buggered [[]]–may be coming to meat counter near you.

If duck liver is verboten but horse meat is in, we have some explaining to do. The most common response to this disparity will be that it’s the the way an animal is raised that matters when it comes to eating ethically. Ducks suffer when tubes are shoved in their throats and their livers are fattened; horses, however, can (so we’re told) lead a good life and die in peace in the comfort of a loving abattoir. You know this drill. But such an argument only perpetuates a mentality that ensures we’ll never make progress when it comes to improving the lives of animals. In sum, to eat horse meat (or condone it) while deeming foie gras ethically unsound is to perpetuate what you clearly disdain: the poor treatment of animals. Let me try and explain why.

Most opponents of foie gras come to their position after hearing about or seeing videos of ducks being force-fed mush through a tube jammed into their gullets. Even if it’s true that ducks lack a gag reflex, these searing images disgust us. It’s worthing thinking about why. Is it because we believe an animal deserves equal moral consideration and, as a result, should not be force fed so humans can pay $40 a plate to eat their internal organs? No, for many of us, this is not the problem. After all, many (most?) people who won’t eat foie gras are probably just fine eating the duck itself. Instead, our opposition, however unlikely, arises from the fact that humans can gag. Every one of us has choked on something in our lives and we know that its a crappy feeling. Can you imagine your whole life with a tube stuck in your throat? Yes, we can, and it’s for this very reason that we can also directly empathize with ducks in confinement and, no matter how distant our shared past, no matter how foreign we are to them, declare force-feeding, and hence its products, abhorrently inhumane.

Now take the horse. Because we know horses as well as we do, because they’ve been integral to so much of human history, we also know that they’re capable of living exceedingly happy lives. Our bond with these animals has been enduring; our past with them tight. Why is it then that most of us are able to discuss their slaughter–even PETA!–as if where the most natural act in the world? How is it that even the most openly welfare minded of consumers can casually subjugate the ethics of slaughter to the logistics of location? I’d say the answer has to do with empathy. That is, whereas we can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, most of us cannot (thankfully) even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse.This prospect is quite fortunately beyond the realm of even the more sordid of our imaginations. We literally cannot relate to such a scenario.

Which brings me to the upshot. Because we cannot imagine what it would be like for ourselves to be culled and killed, we have the luxury of fabricating what the experience is like for the animal we want to eat. Herein lies the heart of the distinction between the hatred of foie gras and acceptance of horse meat. Our actual inability to empathize with what an animal endures when it’s slaughtered allows us to project whatever we want to project upon that inherently tragic moment. They lived a good life. They didn’t know what was coming. Temple Grandin designed the slaughterhouse. They sacrificed their lives for us. And so on. We cannot make the same rationalizations for ducks raised for foie gras for a very simple reason: we would know, as a result of our own experience, that any positive projection we came up with would be a distortion of reality. We would know this because, alas, we gag.

The deeper value of the “empathy test” is that it reiterates the most essential similarity humans share with animals: sentience. Humans, just like animals, experience pleasure and pain. Our empathy provides the bridge between our sentience and theirs. The fact that so many consumers reject foie gras because of the painful manner in which ducks are fed, and the fact that the way they are fed is a phenomenon to which we can directly relate, is ipso facto proof that many consumers already recognize the moral baseline of sentience. Anyone who thinks that it’s possible to eschew liver but eat horse–or any animal product, for that matter–is choking on self-deception.