Ever since late 2011, when Valley Meat Company applied to the US Department of Agriculture to open a horse slaughterhouse in Roswell, animal rights activists around the country have been up in arms over the idea of killing horses for meat. This week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the plant—which, if approved, would be the country’s first since 2007—should open. “We’re basically waiting for one final signature,” A Blair Dunn, Valley Meat’s attorney, tells SFR. Here, a look at the controversy behind the plant.
A horse goes through a series of problematic steps before it becomes a slice of meat. Horses are claustrophobic and tend to flee when they sense danger. After arriving at the slaughterhouse, they head to the stun box, where they’re bolted in the brain to knock them unconscious.
“That’s when they get jumpy,” says Bruce Wagman, an attorney for the nonprofit horse advocacy group Front Range Equine Rescue. Unlike cows, horses don’t have flat foreheads, and their brains are farther back, making it tough to knock them out. If the bolt doesn’t work, the horse may go from the stun room to the final kill semi-conscious.
Next, shackles are used to lift the horse by its rear legs, a process that can break bones along its hip area. The final blow is a slit to the animal’s carotid artery, which pumps blood from the heart to the brain. Dunn notes that some Mexican slaughterhouses have high success rates with captive-bolting horses, adding that Valley Meat is considering an alternative—firearms.
In the mid-2000s, only three horse slaughterhouses remained in the US. All of the meat was shipped to other countries, but the plants also caused problems at home. Kaufman, Texas’ Dallas Crown, for instance, kept a rotting pile of bones and a 600-gallon container of horse limbs and innards in front of the slaughterhouse, attracting flies and maggots. In 2010, the USDA also filed a formal complaint against Valley Meat for improperly disposing of cattle remains in piles up to 15 feet high that had enough maggots to move the piles themselves. (Dunn says the pile was a composting site, and that the new plant will dump remains in a landfill.)
Unlike livestock raised for human consumption, horses are usually raised for sport or leisure activity.
“These animals are not raised for food in the way other animals, such as cows, pigs and chickens are,” reads Front Range’s 2012 petition to the USDA opposing horse slaughterhouses. Horses are sometimes given drugs that are banned in animals meant for meat consumption—but Dunn argues that people would have to consume unusual amounts of horsemeat to incur any harm.
“It really comes down to fear-mongering and doesn’t have a basis in science,” he says.
Where Do the Parts Go?
Valley Meat has stated that its Roswell slaughterhouse would only produce meat for human consumption.
After a horse is butchered, plants get rid of the offal, or the remains. Though the offal could be sent to a rendering plant to be turned into products like dog food, Wagman says the last three horse slaughterhouses just threw the parts out—just as Valley Meat once did for cattle.
“We do know that when Valley Meat was running a beef operation, they were just piling dead animals on their property,” he says.
Who Eats Horses, Anyway?
The European Union consumes more than 80,000 metric tons of horsemeat each year—especially Italy, where it’s made into sausages and stews. Horsemeat is also popular in South Korea and Japan, where it’s served raw. Valley Meat maintains it would ship all of its horsemeat abroad.
“Things live and die,” Dunn says. “That’s the way things work.”