Barring an act of Congress, Valley Meat Company in Roswell, N.M., will soon become the first horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. since 2007, when the nation's last equine abattoir closed its doors. For the time being, the resulting meat will be exported. Domestic sale of horsemeat is not illegal, but Congress doesn't currently allocate funds to regulate it for human consumption, something Valley Meat owner Tim Sappington hopes will change. A vocal consumer of horsemeat, Sappington eats it three times a week, he told Bloomberg News. Chicken fried horse steak is his favorite preparation.
The opening of the Valley Meat slaughterhouse, and the outcry it has provoked among some horse-lovers, highlights the complex relationship Americans have with horses. To many, horses are friends, up there with dogs and cats, and the thought of killing them is deeply disturbing. The problem is, Americans love horses so much that we have too many of them. The racehorse industry produces a regular supply of spent thoroughbreds and quarter horses. Farmers and ranchers have to dispose of old workhorses, as do big-city horse-drawn carriage operators. In the cold light of the bottom line, selling used-up horses rather than paying to keep them alive is a logical choice.
Since Congress stopped funding activities related to horse slaughter in 2007, the unwanted horses have been auctioned off to meat buyers and quietly shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. Last year nearly 200,000 were shipped across the border, in a journey that is often brutal.
These retired workhorses can contain vaccines, antibiotics, steroids, painkillers and other medicines unapproved for use in food animals. For this reason the European Union, some member countries of which have a taste for horse flesh, is planning to be more selective about the horsemeat it allows in. There are similar stirrings in Japan and Russia, other big consumers of horsemeat.
Meanwhile, a burgeoning population of mustangs is roaming the arid open spaces of the West, often in dense-enough numbers to become an ecological nuisance. While often called "wild," these free-roaming horses (and burros) are descended from animals brought over by Europeans. They are an introduced, invasive species, with few predators to worry about.
"Horse populations left in the wild, unmanaged, would double in size every four years," says Paul McGuire, public affairs specialist at the Oklahoma Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management. "The land cannot sustain that kind of growth in horse populations."
The BLM spends $75 million annually to manage the mustangs that live on federal land. This budget includes $43 million dedicated to "holding costs" for approximately 40,000 "excess horses" that have been removed from their range and currently reside on five long-term pasture facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma.
The animals deemed most adoptable, meanwhile, are held in one of 54 facilities across central and western U.S. According to a report on the BLM website, these facilities are currently at capacity. Animals that aren't adopted join the others in a long-term pasture.
Perhaps these free-roaming horses are the ones that should be slaughtered. The animals are coming from clean, if not pristine environments. Given the changing preferences among the world's purchasers of U.S. horsemeat, the market prospects for clean meat from free-range horses are good. Why spend money maintaining something that you could make money by selling?
As long as the American relationship with horses remains so conflicted, with a powerful horse-loving lobby holding the stronger hand, sensible horse management policy might not be in the cards. Until Congress decides otherwise, millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent each year to manage and protect an invasive species that also happens to be a great source of lean protein and is delicious. (I've tried it trice myself: stir-fried in China, where it tasted like a sweet cross between beef and pork, and canned in Mongolia, which was better than Spam.)
If we began harvesting horses, perhaps prospective horse adopters would consider sheltering an old horse that's already given its best years to some human cause. Arguably, those are the horses that most deserve pampering. And once those E.U. restrictions on horsemeat go into effect this summer, old horses with medical histories will probably be less wanted than ever.