Europe’s recent scandal about horse meat in beef products has renewed questions whether Americans could be eating equine products as well.
U.S. Department of Agriculture regulators say it’s unlikely that beef adulterated with horse meat could make it to the nation’s dinner plates.
No domestic suppliers currently slaughter horses, and the agency has strict inspection standards for imported meat.
But, officials acknowledge that species-testing for meat imported into the U.S. is usually only performed when there’s a reason to question a shipment.
There have been reports from Continental Europe that horse meat was mixed in beef sold as frozen burgers and other prepared foods.
Unsubstantiated reports of horses being purchased locally in the Midwest, and slaughtered illegally without inspections, for mixing portions in ground meat products continue to be aired.
A Florida company that supplies validated tests for horse meat in food has received nearly 1,000 requests in recent weeks for its $500 kits, including orders from U.S. meat producers.
Horse meat hidden in beef is also a health concern. Meats taken from store shelves in Britain and Germany had traces of, phenylbutazone, or “bute,” which is banned in animals destined for human food, tests showed.
“If a company is willing to commit fraud, I can’t imagine that food safety is on their agenda,” said Bill Marler, a food safety expert.
Boneless beef adulterated with horse meat made it to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, when mislabeled meat from Australia led to the impounding and testing of 66 million pounds of the product, according to USDA records.
“We have no indication that horse meat is now an ingredient in any FDA-regulated processed foods in the U.S.,” Jalil Isa, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman, said.
Producers such as the meat giant Cargill say they don’t import beef from plants that slaughter horses, or from the companies implicated in the European scandal, and they remain confident that their meat is free of adulteration.
Of course, putting horse meat on the dinner table is common in many countries, including France, Canada, Mexico and Japan.
And, it’s not unheard of on American menus. Nevertheless, most Americans still consider horse meat off-limits.
At the close of World War II, when beef was in short supply, some Americans were said to have readily consumed horse meat. Republicans blamed the meat scarcity on President Truman, giving him the nickname “Horsemeat Harry.”
During the early 1970s, beef prices sharply increased, and cash-strapped shoppers were again reported to be buying cheaper horse meat.
Slaughterhouses that produced horse meat for human consumption were in operation in the U.S., until 2007, when the last three of a one-time high of 17 plants closed under federal pressure.
Congress effectively banned the practice by refusing to fund USDA inspections of the slaughterhouses. Those efforts were fueled by vocal anti-slaughter activists who regarded the practice as inhumane.
The arrangement stayed in place until 2011, when the Obama administration lifted the ban, partly out of concern for the neglect of horses in the U.S., and the treatment of horses that were shipped to Canada and Mexico to be killed.
The U.S. exported more than 46,000 metric tons of horse meat in 1990, a figure that fell to about 5,600 metric tons in 2007, when the ban was enacted, industry figures show.
Wyoming state Representative Sue Wallis is still trying to reinstate horse slaughter in the U.S. and to build a new source for the meat in America and abroad.
Her applications are among those pending with the USDA to open horse slaughterhouses in Missouri, Iowa and New Mexico.
Horse meat, Wallis said, is prized by gourmet cooks and health enthusiasts for its taste and lean profile. Plus, she contended horse meat is about 40 percent cheaper than beef.
“Eighty percent of a $102 billion-a-year industry was directly affected when they took slaughter away,” said David Duquette, president of the United Horsemen, a group that lobbied to lift the ban.
Currently, more than 100,000 American horses a year are transported to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico that serve foreign markets.
A year ago in Mountain Grove, Mo., area residents were persuasive in turning down a horse processing plant, and Hermiston, Ore., residents also united to take a stand against a proposed facility.
Last spring, New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez came out against a proposal to open a horse slaughterhouse there, and last fall, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill banning horse slaughter in that state.
Drought conditions, higher feed costs, extremely low horse prices, or even no method of dispersing unwanted horses have increased cases of horse abuse, including starvation, and horses have reportedly been turned loose in pastures, timbers and even along roadsides.
Several states have lawsuits pending on horse abuse cases.
Meanwhile, the Unwanted Horse Coalition has been operating for more than six years under the auspices of the American Horse Council.
Officials of the American Quarter Horses Association, an affiliate, said the group’s objectives are “to work to reduce the number of unwanted horses and to improve their welfare through education, and the efforts of organizations committed to the health, safety and responsible care and disposition of these horses.”
The Unwanted Horse Coalition is a partner in The Equine Network’s A Home For Every Horse website where rescues can list horses available for adoption.
Their website keeps a list of more than 700 facilities that accept horses, as well as a directory of resources for horse owners in need.
There are lists of available grants, feed banks, castration clinics, vaccination programs, free equine classified websites and more.
Information is available at www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org or 202-296-4031.