Five states looking to snag millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to inspect horse meat plants may want to rethink their plans in light of a precipitous drop in demand.
The drop is a reflection of the number of horses going from the U.S. to Mexico for slaughter. That number plummeted 62% in the first quarter of 2013 following a steady two-year increase, USDA figures show.
A bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress voted to defund horse slaughter inspections as part of the lengthy 2006 agricultural appropriations bill, but the USDA privately offered fee-for-service inspections to plant operators to get around the ban--a maneuver that kept them operating for another year, but was later found to violate U.S. law by a Federal District Court judge.
At the same time, a 1949 ban on slaughtering horses in Texas was upheld in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, while Illinois passed a statewide ban, making slaughter illegal in both states. The City of Kaufman, Texas, too, took legal action against a local horse slaughter plant, Dallas Crown, which was found to be a non-conforming use and a public nuisance by the city's Board of Adjustments and ordered closed.
By September 2007, all three U.S. slaughter plants for horses had shut down. They later resumed operations over U.S. borders.
U.S. horses were slaughtered in greater numbers in Canada and Mexico from 2007 onward, with the meat exported to the European Union (EU) and Russia.
But all that changed in late January of this year, when the public learned of horse meat hidden inside Burger King Whoppers, IKEA meatballs, Buitoni frozen lasagna and other prepared foods across Europe and in the rest of the world. The adulteration of beef with horse meat had gone undetected for years, authorities say.
"We have been watching the numbers of U.S. horses slaughtered closely, because we knew they would tell us how much of the meat from our horses was being sold as beef," states John Holland, President of the Equine Welfare Alliance.
How much? A great deal of it, Holland says.
The discovery of horse meat sold as beef explains why more U.S horses were being exported for slaughter despite a decade-long slump in direct consumption of horse meat in the EU. More than 160,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered for their meat in 2012.
The sales of processed beef products have dropped in EU countries in the wake of the comingling scandal, where consumers intentionally buying horse meat were already cutting back.
"Any drop in horse meat sales is most likely attributable to it no longer being sold as beef," Holland concludes.
The current trend does not bode well for plants in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Iowa and New Mexico trying to bring horse slaughter back to the U.S., since they will be competing with multinational conglomerates in what appears to be a rapidly shrinking market.
Data on the export of horses to Canada for slaughter will not be available for 60 days, but reports in the Canadian media indicate an even more severe drop in the number of U.S. horses being slaughtered in Canada.
The export of U.S. horses to Canadian slaughter had already been on the decline in 2012 when it dropped by 7.5%, but this was more than offset by a 61% increase in horses going to Mexico. The shift of horses going to Mexico has been attributed by some to the fact that Mexico does not test for phenylbutazone contamination, an issue that has plagued Canadian slaughter plants, Holland says.
On Friday, April 5, the Toronto Star published an article stating that "serious flaws in Canada's food inspection system are putting our health at risk when it comes to horses destined for the food chain." You can read the article here.
As the Star's investigation shows, a racehorse named Backstreet Bully who had a documented record of nitrofurazone and phenylbutazone use was certified "drug free" by a kill buyer who had bought the horse at an auction just days before it was slaughtered. Canadian officials were notified of Backstreet Bully's drug record by a former owner, but the racehorse was slaughtered anyway. Officials have refused to tell the Star if Backstreet Bully's meat entered the food chain, the Star's reporters say.
In 2007, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service stated: "phenylbutazone is considered to be one of the most toxic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It is not approved for use in food animals and there are no regulatory limits, such as acceptable daily intake or safe concentration for meat, established by the Food and Drug Administration. Therefore, the presence of any amount of phenylbutazone in food animal tissue will be considered a violation and likely to be unsafe for human consumption."
U.S. taxpayers will fund any inspections of horse slaughter plants that reopen on U.S. soil with federal tax dollars. Five slaughter plants are now vying for those monies, which would be taken from other food safety programs that benefit U.S. families. The U.S. presently does not have a system for keeping drugged horses out of the slaughterhouses--and raising them solely for this purpose is not economically viable.
The plants now looking to slaughter horses in the U.S. intend to export whatever they produce--but as the USDA figures show, it may not have a place to go. And U.S. consumers, by overwhelming majority, don't want it, either.
The Equine Welfare Alliance (EWA) is a dues-free 501c4, umbrella organization with over 280 member organizations and over 1,000 individual members worldwide in 18 countries. The organization focuses its efforts on the welfare of all equines and the preservation of wild equids. www.equinewelfarealliance.org