Lincoln, NE – The closing of the country’s last meat processing plant that slaughtered horses for human consumption was hailed as a victory for equine welfare. But five years later just as many American horses are destined for dinner plates to satisfy the still robust appetites for their meat in Europe and Asia.
Now they are carved into tartare de cheval or basashi sashimi in Mexico and Canada.
That shift is one of the many unintended consequences of a de facto federal ban on horse slaughter, according to a recent federal government study. As the domestic market for unwanted horses shrinks, more are being neglected and abandoned, and roughly the same number — nearly 140,000 a year — are being killed after a sometimes grueling journey across the border.
“When they closed the plants, that put more of a hardship on our horses than the people who wanted to stop the slaughter can imagine,” said John Schoneberg, a Nebraska horse breeder who recently took in three horses from a nearby farmer who said that he was unable to pay for feed and would otherwise turn them loose.
The study’s findings have been fiercely contested by animal welfare groups, which argue that most of the problems stem from the economic downturn and the high price of feed. The study also breathed new life into the long-smoldering battle over whether to allow the resumption of domestic horse slaughter or, alternatively, to prohibit the animals from being shipped abroad for their meat.
In recent weeks lawmakers have pushed Congress to take action in both directions. The Government Accountability Office, which conducted the study, concluded that either option would be better than the status quo, but advocates on both sides, while hopeful, said a resolution did not appear imminent.
“It’s just a hot political issue,” said Dr. Whitney Miller, a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, which supports allowing horse slaughter. “It’s hard to see something definitive happening.”
The effect of the standoff has been deeply felt in rural states like Nebraska. Horse breeders and the owners of livestock auctions say that eliminating slaughter basically removed the floor for horse prices, allowing the market to collapse and forcing many out of the business. One reason, they say, is that owners are now forced to pay hundreds of dollars to euthanize and dispose of unwanted horses when they used to receive about that much to sell them to slaughterhouses.
This year, Nebraska became one of a number of states — along with Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and others — that have pushed to resuscitate the dormant horse slaughter industry, which produced meat valued at an estimated $65 million a year before closing. Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican, signed a law to take steps to regulate horsemeat at the state level that passed the single-chamber legislature, the Unicameral, with only one dissenting vote.
These efforts have been fiercely opposed by animal rights groups, which rejected as ridiculous the argument that horses would be better off if they could be killed for meat. Pointing to their own research, they say any increase in improper care for horses can be connected to the economy, rather than to the elimination of slaughter. And if prices have declined, they say, that is because the ban removed an incentive to overbreed horses.
Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said that horse owners should commit to providing lifetime care for the animals. He said surveys had found widespread opposition to killing horses for their meat.
“Horses are different than cows and pigs in one very important sense, in that they are not raised for slaughter,” he said.
But there is an enduring chasm in how horses are viewed.
“A horse, to me, is a livestock animal like a cow, sheep or a goat,” said Orbie Bonnett, a Nebraska rancher who stopped selling horses after prices plummeted. “A lot of folks nowadays look at a horse like a pet, like a dog or a cat. When you have a lot of money folk looking at this that way, well, there goes your slaughterhouses, there goes your market and there goes your horse folk — they just can’t make it anymore.”
The United States, much of it settled on horseback, has never really taken to eating horse except in times of need. But elsewhere, the meat — lean and protein-rich — is prized as a delicacy. Selling to a slaughterhouse has long been a way to make some money, to get rid of an old or unwanted horse no longer able to perform at a racetrack, show ring or ranch.
The last slaughterhouses for horses, in Texas and Illinois, closed after Congress stripped financing for federal inspections of horse slaughter in 2006, a move that effectively banned the sale of the meat. That year, only 105,000 horses were slaughtered domestically; 33,000 from the United States were slaughtered abroad. Last year, 138,000 or more were slaughtered abroad, according to government figures. (The population of horses in the United States is about nine million.)
“It’s slightly hypocritical to allow these horses to be slaughtered anyway up in Canada or Mexico and not allow people here to get the income or serve the meat,” said Hugue Dufour, a chef in New York who cooked horse while working in Canada.
Now owners have to pay to get rid of horses. Debby Brehm, director of the Nebraska Quarter Horse Association, spent $200 last month to euthanize a sick horse and $150 more for it to be hauled to a rendering plant. Other owners keep them but are unable to bear the thousands of dollars a year it can cost to feed and care for them. As a result, the sight of malnourished animals is familiar, Ms. Brehm said, and stories abound of horses abandoned on public and private land and even, in one audacious case, in someone else’s horse trailer.
“You see a lot of malnourished and abandoned horses that probably would have been humanely slaughtered before,” said Windy Allen, a horse trainer in the state.
Others say the ban is costing them money, too.
The Southeast Nebraska Livestock Auction used to sell about 100 horses every month, but now that may be the total for a year, said Dale Steinhoff, the owner. At Central Nebraska Packing, which used to slaughter horses but now buys more than one million pounds of horsemeat a year for sale to zoos, the meat is far more expensive when imported from Canada, said Lloyd Woodward, general manager.
And, even as they pay less, those who buy the animals for slaughter — a group known as “kill buyers” — say they are struggling to cover their costs.
“The Mexicans are getting rich off us,” said Derry Mayfield, who buys about 40 horses a month and sometimes has them given to him for no cost. “They’re buying these horses cheap because they can. We have no other options.”