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Human beings have consumed horse meat since the earliest days of human history: the oldest known cave art, the thirty-thousand year-old paintings in the Chauvet Cave of modern France, show horses prominently alongside other wild animals hunted by humans. The later domestication of the horse is widely held to have been initiated for the purposes of raising horses for slaughter for human consumption. However, modern horse slaughter has become highly controversial in many parts of the world, based on a multiplicity of concerns: e.g., whether horses are or can be managed humanely in industrial-scale slaughter; whether horses not purpose-raised for consumption are likely to yield safe meat; whether it is appropriate to consume a creature that has become a companion animal in affluent societies.
Horse meat is a quite dry meat to cook, it is common to add some extra fat from other animals (like bacon) to increase its softness when roasted.
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In most countries where horses are slaughtered for food, they are processed in industrial abattoirs in similar fashion to cattle. Typically, a penetrating captive bolt gun or gunshot is used to attempt to destroy the animal's higher brain tissue. The blow is intended to either kill the horse instantly or stun it, with immediate exsanguination (bleeding out) being used to both ensure death and to begin the process of meat harvesting. Saleable meat is removed from the carcass, with the remains rendered for other commercial uses.
Horse welfare advocates have raised concerns that the particular physiology of the horse cranium means that neither the penetrating captive bolt gun nor gunshots are reliable means of ensuring that is horse is in fact killed or stunned, and that the animal is more likely to be simply be paralyzed, and to therefore experience the full pain and awareness of being skinned and butchered alive during the final phase of the slaughter process.
In the United States, horses slaughtered for meat come mainly from auctions, where they are sold by private sellers and breeders.
According to a study commissioned by USDA/APHIS when horses were still being slaughtered in the U.S., 92% of American horses being slaughtered at US plants studied were in good health. Rarely are these horses sick and injured, as those horses have trouble withstanding the long, crowded transportation conditions to slaughter plants. Most horses bound for slaughter are brought to the slaughterhouses by contract buyers, also known as kill buyers, who drive around the country buying horses at auction.
About 90% of the horsemeat is exported for human consumption overseas, where it sells for approximately the same price as veal. The rest goes to zoos. Horsemeat was outlawed in pet food in the 1970s.
Slaughter of horses is opposed by the vast majority of Americans, as shown in multiple professionally conducted surveys. Horses are widely perceived as companion animals like cats and dogs, or deserving of humane consideration because of their roles serving Americans as working animals and for sport - and because they are not bred or raised for food in the U.S.
American horse meat raises a number of potential health concerns, mainly due to the routine usage of medications in horses banned in food animals, and the lack of tracking of this usage in horses. Unlike livestock raised for food, where all potential medications are tested for withdrawal times; approved or banned for usage, and vigilantly tracked for each animal, there is no way to guarantee which medications have or have not been used in a particular horse. In fact, The European Commission Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) found serious violations during inspections conducted in November and December 2010 of EU regulated plants in Mexico slaughtering horses for human consumption. Most American horses destined for slaughter end up at EU regulated plants in Mexico and Canada. Horses, unlike traditional food animals in the United States, are not raised or medicated during their lifetime with the intent of one day becoming human food. Because American horses are not "intended" for the human food chain, throughout their lives they will often have received medications that are banned by the FDA for use at any time during the life of food animals. According to horsemeat dealers, the meat has a lower cholesterol content than American beef, and high iron content, low fat content, even suggested as red meat for people with heart problems.
Most Americans oppose the slaughtering of horses for meat consumption. According to polls, in New York, 64% of people polled believed that slaughtering horses for meat was illegal, while in Indiana, 91% believe that horse slaughter should be banned. In Texas 89% of voters are unaware that horse slaughter was then going on in their own state. In 2013, the Obama administration proposed a move to remove funding for US Department of Agriculture inspections of horse slaughter plants in the 2014 financial year.
There are 200 agricultural and horse breeding organizations that oppose the proposed ban on horse slaughter, and over 300 animal welfare organizations, horse trade groups, prominent horse owners, and corporate leaders that support a ban.
Some of the equine organizations that support a ban on horse slaughter include the Veterinarians for Equine Welfare, The Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute, ASPCA, Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, the American Horse Defense Fund and hundreds of horse industry groups, businesses, trainers, jockeys, Kentucky Derby winning owners, legislators and animal welfare groups. The Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industry strongly oppose horse slaughter. Most equine adoption and rescue groups also oppose slaughter for human consumption. These groups are protesting horse slaughter on the grounds that the industry in unacceptably inhumane and cannot be made humane. Many also object to the United States exporting toxic horse meat overseas, which could create problems for export of other American meat products.
Included in the group lobbying for horse slaughter are the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), the largest breed association in the world that breeds more horses per year than all of the other major breed associations combined; the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP); the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA); and numerous animal agriculture groups. Included in the animal agriculture groups are organizations representing the interests of traditional food animal industries, such as cattle, sheep, and pork, who are concerned that banning any animal for slaughter will lead to outlawing all meat production.
One argument that is forwarded by horsemeat proponents is that neglect would increase if 1% of the horse population isn't slaughtered each year. According to an animal control officer in Oregon, most frequent reasons for horse neglect include "owner ignorance or apathy or in some cases, divorce, family illness or physical injury, financial setback such as unemployment and other aggravated family troubles."
With the recent economic downturn and subsequent contraction in the horse market, horse breeders - particularly those who breed in quantity - have come under increasing scrutiny for their continued breeding in a down market, while many of them actively lobby for slaughter to subsidize their continued breeding. The director of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the US subsequently reported in the LA Times seizing large numbers of horses and the horse rescues were taking in more horses that ever before, despite the record number of horses shipped to Mexico for slaughter.
Horses in the United States are not bred, raised or treated as meat. Almost all equine medications and treatments are labeled "not for horses intended for human consumption." In the European Union, horses intended for slaughter cannot be treated with many medications commonly used for U.S. horses. For horses going to slaughter, there is no period of withdrawal between the time it leaves home and the time it is butchered.
Since the closure of the U.S. facilities in Texas and Illinois, Canadian and Mexican imports increased by 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively, as per the GAO Report to Congressional Committees dated June 2011.
Horses have been illegally sold to auctions, where they are bought by kill buyers and shipped to slaughter. Auctions provide a means of selling horses without the consent of the owner, either through theft or misappropriation.
Of the horse meat supplied by the three equine slaughter houses that operated in the U.S., about 10% was sold to zoos to feed their carnivores, and 90% was shipped via air freight to Europe and Japan for human consumption. In 2006, The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to end horse slaughter, but the bill never came to a vote before the Senate. In 2007 two horse slaughter plants in Texas were ordered closed following protracted battles with their local municipalities, who voiced objections over the slaughter houses' financial drain on the municipalities without providing tax revenue, ditches of blood, dismembered foals, and reek of offal and waste in residential neighborhoods. Later that year, an abattoir in Illinois, reported to be the last horse meat abattoir in the U.S., was also closed following local community action.
Prior to 2007, three major equine slaughterhouses operated in the United States: Dallas Crown, Inc. in Kaufman, Texas; Beltex Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas; and Cavel International, Inc. in DeKalb, Illinois, all with Belgian ownership, although Multimeat NW has also been listed as French and Dutch owned. Velda NV owns Cavel, Multimeat NV owns Beltex and Chevideco owns Dallas Crown.
The slaughterhouses exported approximately 42 million dollars' worth of horse meat per year, with the majority of that money going to the foreign-owned exporters overseas. Horsemeat is one of the most carbon-intensive meat products, since horses have a very poor feed to pound conversion ratio, so it takes much more time and feed input to get to an acceptable weight for slaughter. Then horses are trucked to auctions all over North America before going to a handful of North American slaughter plants. Following processing, carcasses are then airlifted to Europe and Asia, and Asia also imports live horses as well.
Since the human consumption of horse meat is considered unacceptable by the majority of the United States populace, most of the horses slaughtered for this purpose in the United States were exported to other countries such as France, Belgium and Japan, where the meat is not widely consumed, but is still a staple in supermarkets, where it sells for a price similar to veal.
In March 2012 Wyoming state Representative Sue Wallis proposed building a new horse meat processing plant in Missouri or Arkansas. She claimed to have $6 million to invest and support by Belgian horse meat buyers. In May 2012, Wallis sought local investors in Wyoming to help finance a plant estimated to help finance the plant, which she said could cost between $2 million and $6 million which would process up to 200 horses a day for sale abroad and to ethnic markets within the U.S.
There have been efforts to create a Federal law, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, designed to stop the slaughter of American horses for human consumption. On September 8, 2006, the House of Representatives passed a bill which, had it also passed the Senate and been signed by the President, would have made killing or selling American horses for human consumption an illegal practice in the United States.
Two bills, H.R.503 in the House and S.1915 in the Senate, were introduced in the 109th Congress to prevent the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. H.R. 503 was passed in the House on September 7, 2006, by a recorded vote of 263–146. S.1915 was read twice, and referred committee, and not reported out for a vote. Both bills died at the end of the 109th Congress. The bills were reintroduced in the 110th Congress on January 17, 2007, as H.R.503 and S.311. S.311 was reported out but not taken up for a vote. The bills were not reintroduced in the 111th Congress. Two bills were introduced in the 112th Congress, HR 2966 and S 1176, American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011.
The Department of Transportation has officers at the enforcement points to ensure proper transportation of horses, but has no jurisdiction beyond transportation matters. Horses that are severely lame or disabled are not accepted at the plants. In 2008, Animals' Angels received over 900 pages of documents and photographs from the United States Department of Agriculture taken during part of 2005 at the Beltex horse slaughter plant in Texas. The document revealed an appalling number of incidences and an equally appalling degree of suffering sustained by horses, including hundreds of photographs that graphically depict horses with open fractures, legs missing, battered and bloody faces, eyeballs dangling and what appears to be horses left to bleed to death.
A 1998 survey commissioned by the USDA/APHIS to determine where welfare problems occur during horse transport to slaughter found severe welfare problems in 7.7% of the transported horses, with a majority from conditions caused by owner neglect or abuse rather than transportation. The report recommended fining individuals who transport horses unfit for travel. However, despite those recommendations, in an April 2011 Report on Equine transport violations, of 458 violators and 280 cases reported since February 1, 2002, only 51 of these 458 violators have received fines. Total fines assessed were $781,350.00. The highest fines imposed were $230,000.00 (Charles Carter, CO), $162,000.00 (Leroy Baker, OH) and $77,825.00 (Bill Richardson, TX) It is unknown at this point how much of these assessed fines actually has been paid. Violators continue to operate business as usual.
The abuse horses suffer throughout the slaughter pipeline, from feedlot to auction to transport to the kill process itself has been widely documented by Animals Angels in this 30-page report. Findings included dangerously overcrowded pens, aggressive, rough handling, equine suffering that is observed and tolerated, transport with no rest, no water and no food for 28 hours by law, for longer by actual practice, no food, water, shelter for extended periods - at auction, during transport, at feedlots and export pens, transport in double decked trailers between auctions and feedlots only tall enough for cattle, and injuries untreated.
On February 22, 2007, Rep. Robert Molaro introduced a bill, HB1711, to the Illinois General Assembly to prohibit the transportation of horses into the State for the sole purpose of slaughter for human consumption.
There are US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations governing the transportation of horses, but the USDA has said it does not have the resources to enforce the regulation. In 2009, a bill which would have prohibited interstate transport of live horses in double-deck horse trailers passed out of committee in the House of Representatives and placed on the Union Calendar. The bill died at the end of the 111th United States Congress.
On July 9, 2011, Sen Mary Landrieu, (D-LA) and co-sponsor Sen Lindsey graham (R-SC) has introduced Senate Bill S.1176 The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 to amend the Horse Protection Act (15 U.S.C. ch. 44) to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption.
On November 18, 2011, the ban on the slaughter of horses for meat was lifted as part of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012.
On January 19, 2007, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned a lower court's 2006 ruling on a 1949 Texas law that banned horse slaughter for the purpose of selling the meat for food on grounds that the Texas law was invalid because it had been repealed by another statute and was pre-empted by federal law. However, a panel of three judges on the 5th Circuit disagreed, saying the law still stood and was still enforceable. On March 6, 2007, without comment or dissent, the 19 judges of United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected a petition by three foreign-owned slaughter plants seeking full court review of a three-judge panel's January 19, 2007 decision.
On March 28, 2007, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that it was illegal for horse slaughterhouses to pay the USDA for their own health inspections. The next day USDA pulled their inspectors from Cavel, effectively ending slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States.
In June 2007, a federal judge refused a request from the nation's last operating horse slaughterhouse, located in Illinois, to remain open. As of July 2007, a legal dispute over an Illinois state ban on killing horses for food remains unresolved .
The last remaining horse slaughter plant in the country was effectively shut down September 21 when a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled an Illinois law banning horse slaughter for human consumption is constitutional.
The ruling comes four months after Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the law, overwhelmingly passed by the Illinois State Senate earlier this year.
Belgian-owned Cavel International immediately filed a federal lawsuit contesting the ban. While the lawsuit was pending, the slaughter plant was allowed to operate, rendering hundreds of horses a week.
Cavel has the option to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but it is likely that the justices will refuse to hear the case, as they did earlier this year when two Texas slaughter facilities appealed their respective closures.
As of September 2007, bills introduced in the U.S. Congress (H.R.503 and S.311), known informally as the "American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act", are being considered by congressional committees. The description of these bills is "To amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption, and for other purposes." These bills can be viewed and their status tracked via a Library of Congress to follow Legislation in Current Congress.
American Oilman T. Boone Pickens is a strong opponent of the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Pickens lobbyied for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (HR 503) which would prohibit the slaughter for human consumption and the trade and transport of horseflesh and live horses intended for human consumption. NBC5 reported on November 9, 2006, that Pickens was among those who opposed the slaughter of horses. "The whole thing, it's a boondoggle on the American people", said Pickens. "People that are for the slaughter should be forced to go down on that kill floor." Equestrian Magazine reported on July 24, 2006, that Pickens would be testifying on July 25, 2006, to support the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503). "The brutal slaughter of horses for consumption by wealthy diners in Europe and Japan cuts against our moral and cultural fiber -- it's just plain un-American", said Pickens. Pickens criticized Texas for being home to two horse slaughter plants. "This is a black eye on our state and nation that demands action", Pickens said. Pickens added that nearly all the horses sent to the plants are healthy young horses that the USDA has classified in "good to excellent" condition.
Time magazine reported in its July 25, 2006, issue that Pickens was pushing for passage of the bill to bar the slaughter of horses for human consumption and that he was being opposed by many of his friends in the cattle business. "I don't like it", says Pickens, "and I'm going to do everything I can to stop it." Pickens says that many horse sellers have no idea that their horses are going to be slaughtered after they are sold. "They're thinking their horse will go to some nice family. But those killer buyers, when they buy at auction, it's just a matter of hours before the horse is slaughtered", Pickens says. "You know they are killing a lot of stolen horses." Pickens finds it even more outrageous that the three horse slaughterhouses in the United States are all owned by a Belgian businessman. "We don't eat horsemeat here, so it does seem peculiar that someone from Belgium owns the kill plant and the meat is sent to Europe", Pickens says. "Why not in their own countries? Why come to America to do the dirty deal?" Pickens also notes that the USDA spends millions of dollars supervising the slaughterhouses. "Paula Bacon (the mayor of Kaufman, Texas) told me the kill plant had $12 million in gross revenues and only pays $5 in taxes but it clogs the sewage system up."
A drop in the economic status of horse owners can result in the inability to provide their horse an appropriate standard of care, which can lead to horse neglect. The continued breeding of horses only makes this situation worse. This situation has also led to an increase in the number of horse abandonment and cruelty cases.
According to The Daily Mail, as of 2007[update] up to 5,000 horses were being slaughtered annually in the United Kingdom — not, they report, for domestic consumption but rather for export, mostly to France. According to that 2007 article, UK law "effectively forbids" the export of live animals for slaughter. The RSPCA listed horses among the animals exported from Ramsgate port since its reopening for live animal exports in 2011.
The Daily Mail reported in 2007 that 100,000 horses were then being transported annually into and around the European Union, for human consumption in France and Belgium, where horse meat is accepted. In 2011, Belgian and Dutch consumers were shocked to learn of widespread horse slaughter-related cruelty in North and South America. Undercover video footage aired on three major news programs showed horses designated for slaughter are routinely starved, dehydrated, injured and abused. Within hours of the story's broadcast, supermarkets responded with promises to investigate. Delhaize, the second largest retailer in Belgium asked their supplier to remove affected meat from their shelves. Two other major grocers have told consumers they do not import horse meat from outside Europe.
Horse meat traditionally was a source of meat during times of desperation, such as early 20th century World Wars. (See war horse.) Before the advent of motorized warfare, campaigns usually resulted in many tens of thousands of equine deaths and both troops and civilians ate the carcasses, since troop logistics were often unreliable. Troops of Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée killed almost all of their horses while retreating from Moscow to be able to feed themselves.
During World War I, Sir Fredrick Hobday reports in his biography "Fifty Years a Veterinary Surgeon", that with the arrival from France of his British Army veterinary field hospital at Cremona in Italy in 1916, he was the subject of a heated bidding war eventually won by horse meat canners in Milan for the all the carcasses of all horses that did not survive, but that were still in reasonable condition.
During World War II the less-motorized Axis troops lost thousands of logistic train horses due to combat and the unusually cold Russian winter. Malnourished soldiers devoured the animals, often going as far as shooting the weaker horses and eating them right away. In the 1840s, Henry Mayhew described how horse meat was then used in London Labour and the London Poor. The different parts fetch different prices in Paris and London.