Horse Meat Scandal Illustrates Need for Federal Action

Michael Markarian: Animals & Politics: Horsemeat Scandal Illustrates Need for Federal Action
Horse meat Scandal Illustrates Need for Federal Action

A food scandal has rocked Europe, where products labeled as beef—everything from frozen lasagna to Swedish meatballs—have tested positive for horsemeat. But it’s not just in Europe where government officials should take notice; the controversy affects the United States, too. More than 100,000 American horses are killed each year for their meat, and the main market for this product is Europe.

Former racehorses, carriage horses, family ponies, and other equines are scooped up at auctions by predatory “killer buyers,” who often outbid horse rescue groups and families that want to give the horses a new, loving home. The majestic creatures are crammed tightly into cattle trucks, and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to slaughter plants across the border in Canada or Mexico.

They are butchered, shrink-wrapped, and air-freighted to Belgium, France, Italy, or other countries. It’s a grisly end for an American icon. And it’s generally reserved for the strongest, healthiest horses, with the most meat on their bones to fetch the most profit—not the sick and homeless as the horse slaughter boosters would have us believe.

Stopping the cruelty of long-distance transport and slaughter of our cherished companions should be enough to spur action. But there’s another major reason our lawmakers should act: We are dumping unsafe and contaminated horsemeat on European dinner plates and supermarket shelves.

The European Union forbids imports of American chicken because the carcasses are bathed in chlorine, and bans pork imports because American producers treat the animals with ractopomine. But tens of thousands of drugged-up American horses are entering the marketplace, even though they are routinely given medicines throughout their lives not intended for human consumption.

Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator with anabolic steroid properties, and Phenylbutazone, known as bute or horse aspirin, are among many commonly prescribed medications for treating ailing or lame horses—but banned for use in animals slaughtered for human consumption. The U.S. has no system in place to track the medications that are given to horses over their lifetimes, and therefore, there’s no reliable way to remove horses from the food chain once they have been given prohibited substances. It’s no surprise that bute was found last summer in horsemeat shipped from Canada to Belgium, and continues to turn up in random testing.

While horse slaughter apologists such as those in the Oklahoma legislature are rallying for a return to equine abattoirs on U.S. soil, it’s becoming uncertain whether they will have any remaining markets to sell their product—especially if the European Union decides to crack down on sales of horsemeat from North America in light of the recent scandal.

It’s time for the U.S. Congress to take a hard look at the serious and far-reaching food safety concerns associated with slaughtering American horses. Lawmakers should reintroduce federal legislation to prevent the slaughter and export of our horses for human consumption, and send a message that the global trade of U.S. horsemeat is simply unsuitable for the dinner table.

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"From my earliest memories, I have loved horses with a longing beyond words." ~ Robert Vavra