U.S. Horse Slaughter Set to Resume: Are Horses ‘Food Animals?’

Childhood pic: author with horse-friend

Horse slaughter is scheduled to resume in the US next month, unless pending legal action stops it. There are questions surrounding this issue that we need to ask and answer, about what exactly we’re up to as a society: what is a ‘food animal?’ Should we have horse slaughterhouses selling horse meat? What about dog slaughterhouses selling dog meat? Does anyone think the problem with our dysfunctional food system is that we just haven’t been killing enough animals? Recent US horse slaughter developments beg serious scrutiny and reflection, from anyone interested in connections between food, health, and conscience.

Will US Horse Slaughter Resume Next Month?

A ban on horse slaughter in the US expired in 2011, but until now the USDA has declined to provide inspectors to horse processing plants — meaning that for all intents and purposes, the ban was still in effect. The last meat company that killed horses in the US closed its doors 6 years ago.

A Roswell, NM, meat company sued the USDA over this policy last October, hoping to sell horse meat to foreign buyers who (unlike most Americans) see horses as ‘food animals.’ There also seems to be a potential market for horse meat as an ingredient for exported animal feed, towards the goal of raising other (‘food’) animals for slaughter and human consumption.

About 3 weeks ago, in a move paving the way for resumed horse slaughter in the US, federal officials approved the NM meat company’s application to start trading in horseflesh. Similar permits are expected to be issued to a slaughterhouse in Gallatin, MO; OK wants in on the action; and as of today, horse slaughter is set to resume on August 5 in NM and IA.

Most Americans feel disgust and outrage at the idea of eating horses. A recent Time article sums up the space that horses occupy within the American psyche:

The traditional view of American horse slaughter was best captured in a 2007  federal circuit court ruling. “The lone cowboy riding his horse is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse,” wrote one judge in a decision that permitted a state ban on the practice.

Even among those who breed and kill cows for a living, horses aren’t typically seen as ‘food animals.’

From a source that I don’t usually have occasion to cite:

The latest BEEF poll, found at beefmagazine.com asks, “As a beef producer, do you favor the U.S. ban on horse slaughter?”

With almost 1,500 votes cast so far, 63% of respondents say, “Yes, it’s inhumane and people shouldn’t be eating horses.”

Several animal protection groups agree with the American public that horse slaughter is disgusting, and deserving of legal resistance. Plans to resume US horse slaughter depend on the outcome of an August 2 hearing before a federal judge in New Mexico. The HSUS, Front Range Equine Rescue of Larkspur, Colorado, and others filed a suit alleging the USDA failed to conduct proper environmental reviews before issuing permits to Valley Meat Co. (Roswell, NM) and Responsible Transportation (Sigourney, IA) meatpacking factories.

The groups who filed this suit view horse slaughter for human consumption as a public health issue, as well as an animal welfare concern. Horses that get butchered for their meat weren’t raised as food animals — instead they’re ‘spent’ racehorses, or old horses formerly used by people for other purposes — and they might be fed or medicated with substances not appropriate for sale as human food. The groups have also expressed concern about the environmental impacts of horse slaughterhouses, which they claim weren’t addressed by the USDA prior to issuing recent horse slaughter permits.

The judge will decide on August 2nd whether to issue a temporary restraining order against the horse slaughter companies, who hope to get down to bloody business with the horse-meat selling as quickly as possible.

Horses and Heretics

I’m pictured above with my friend Gypsy, circa 1980. She was a cat in equine form: she loved to follow me around and see what I was up to, but only if SHE decided to do so. She loved marshmallows, and liked to nibble my hair. Gypsy was (like a cat) very mischievous, and loved to take things she wasn’t supposed to have — her favorite hobby was running off with our shoes, when we’d take them off to jump on the trampoline. She would sort of meander up to where we’d set them on the ground (‘La la la, nothing to see here!’), then snatch them up and canter off joyfully with them. Sometimes she’d shake them back and forth a few times first — ‘Haha, look what *I’ve* got!’ — and sprint away just before we reached her.

I’m also currently friends with a ‘big dog,’ a horse called ChaChi. One of her favorite things in the world is when her family hosts social gatherings on her 40-acre domain. She saunters up to the house, stands around with everyone in the yard or by the porch, and watches the human shenanigans like a spectator sport: those two-legged creatures are entertaining!

I would no more eat a horse than I would eat a beagle, and for the same reasons.

Beagle - Not Food
Horse - Not Food

Based on public outrage over Burger King’s recent horse meat scandal, I think most Americans agree with me.

But then, I’m what meat profiteers like to refer to as a ‘radical’ — I think all animals are just… well, animals. They’re not mystically somehow sorted by the Universe into categories titled ‘pets’ and ‘pest species’ (like Mustangs are to cattle ranchers) and ‘food animals.’ They aren’t disposable items put here for use by the One Important Animal (allegedly me).

They’re just other creatures on the planet with me — in some cases with social and pain-processing neural systems remarkably similar to my own.

To sellers of animal flesh, that world view makes me worse than a radical: it makes me a heretic.

Dissociative Mythology: It’s What’s for Dinner!

As human beings, we rely on social stories and cultural narratives to extract meaning from a complex world. Based on stories told to us by our culture, we embrace without question the idea that some animals are ‘for’ eating, while others are not.

When those cultural narratives are challenged, we feel profoundly uncomfortable: we’re disgusted by the idea of eating those animals we’ve learned to view as companions, and feel threatened if those (arbitrary, completely made-up) categories are challenged.

If somehow we’ve been duped by the social stories we inherited, and ‘food animals’ are worthy of the same moral concern and cruelty protections that we assign to the ‘companion’ ones… imagine how horrible we would feel about participating in such massive hideous completely optional violence towards them!

We learn to compartmentalize, categorize, and dissociate when we think about nonhuman animals, to avoid the horrible feelings stemming from infliction of optional violence upon our fellow creatures.

Melanie Joy has researched and written extensively about the system that teaches us to think of some-animals-but-not-others as ‘food.’  Joy refers to that cultural belief system as carnism:

Carnism is a dominant ideology, meaning that it is invisible and entrenched, woven through the very structure of society. And such institutionalized “isms” inevitably become internalized; in other words, we learn to look at the world through the lens of carnism, as the ideology shapes the very way we think and feel about eating animals. And carnism is also a violent ideology: It is organized around killing. Yet most people who eat animals also care about animals and don’t want them to suffer. So carnism must use a set of social and psychological defense mechanisms to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without fully realizing what they are doing. In other words, carnism teaches how not to feel — when it comes to those species we have been taught to think of as edible.

When we feel disgusted at the thought of eating horse, but not at the thought of eating cow — or sickened by the idea of a slab of slow-roasted dog on our sandwich, but fine with the same slab of pig — the B.S. warning lights should well and truly flash!

That response represents some serious cognitive dissonance, and cries out for thoughtful reflection. If you cringe at these stories about the slaughtering and eating of horses, there’s a window open that’s worth a hard look through: whether or not horse slaughter resumes next month in the US, horses are not ‘food animals’ because THERE IS NO SUCH THING.

Optional deliberate violence deserves disgust, revulsion, and outrage, in one case no more or less than another. Revulsion at the thought of eating ‘inedible’ animals provides an opportunity to reconnect with our empathy — and an opportunity to step back from our cultural stories, look critically upon them, and also reconnect with both our compassion and our disgust.

Images by the author, all rights reserved.

  1. dk

    Horse slaughter is a highly expensive proposition for taxpayers.

    Each plant will cost taxpayers $400,000.00, according to this press release, for inspections. This issue crosses all party lines. Voters and politicians from all sides of the isle are against horse slaughter for a laundry list of reasons.

    Here is the press release:


    This is the worst economy since the Great Depression. In addition to the cost of the USDA inspecting plants, at a price tag of $400,000.00 per plant to U.S. taxpayers, the meat will not even be eaten in the U.S. Why should we, as American taxpayers, pay for these inspections?

    Additionally, we have to factor in the taxpayer expense of police officers who will likely be taking more reports on horse theft and making more investigations into horse theft.

    As a horse owner, the thought of horse theft and stolen horses ending up at slaughter concerns me greatly. I would hope that it would concern you, too. Many people think of their horses as family members.

  2. dk

    I am also against the USDA opening up inspections for the proposed horse slaughter plants in the United States because horses in the U.S. are not raised for human consumption. As a grower of corn, wheat and soybeans, having the USDA inspect horse slaughter plants concerns me as well.

    Horses are our friends and companions (at least they are my friends and companions), and as such they are treated with drugs like cats and dogs to a wide variety of vaccinations, bacterins, topical and oral treatments that are not approved for human consumption. We use gloves with topical treatments, because we don’t want equine drugs touching our skin, let alone consuming them.

    It’s not economical to raise horses for slaughter in the U.S., because it takes more money to raise a foal to maturity than the horse meat market is willing to pay. It’s an economical losing proposition. Therefore, the USDA has no business inspecting a horse slaughter plant that by default will be receiving horses that are not fit for human consumption. The horses they will be receiving have not been raised drug-free for human consumption.

    As a grower of corn, wheat and soybeans, the USDA’s reputation directly affects many. The European Union, which is where most of the horse meat would go, has a zero tolerance for Bute (Phenylbutazone) , which is routinely given to horses in the U.S. It is estimated that 90% of horses in the U.S. have been treated with this drug, not to mention all of the other drugs.

    There is no good way to test for all of these drugs on every horse destined for slaughter, which would need to be done, since they are not raised for human consumption in the U.S. Many tests would need to be run on each horse, and there is no way to do this in a timely fashion, especially given that the tests have to be run after the horse is dead, and that autopsies need to be performed within 24 hours. University testing facilities are not normally open for testing on the weekends, and it takes time to transport the dead body parts for testing.

    Most of the horses destined for slaughter are young or middle-aged, and in the prime of their lives. Two that have been rescued from slaughter have gone on and are now showing at the Morgan Grand National level.

    Here is information on what New Jersey has done regarding horse slaughter in the hopes that readers will take note:


    “The law prohibits anyone from knowingly slaughtering or selling a horse for human consumption.”

  3. dk

    Here is information on the SAFE act (Safeguard American Food Exports) that is in both the House and Senate with identical wording, and links where you can take action to stop horse slaughter. This will not only prevent horse slaughter in the U.S., but make it illegal to transport horses to Mexico or Canada for slaughter:


    Here is on horse slaughter and gives people a way to do something about it by taking action. This is not an endorsement of AWI.

    Here is more information on the SAFE act and ways to take action: https://secure.humanesociety.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=5933

  4. tlm

    If Mr. Redford, PETA, HSUS, and others insist on pursuit of banning slaughter in the USA then might I make a suggestion. That they might actually use their monetary resources for regular contributions to rescues, your homes to house these horses, your time to care for them, your knowledge to train them, your farrier skills for hoof care, and your vet abilities to keep up the health of unwanted, abandoned, back yard bred horses, and some form of birth control for wild horses. If they do not have the capacity to house horses/ponies/burros on their property then pay boarding fees out of their own pockets. As well as purchase grain and hay to feed every horse/pony/burro they prevent from being processed. There also should be some type of regulated registry that all anti slaughter people and groups should have to register with and create a monthly electronic debit so each month an actual rescue that is listed and classified as a rescue receives funds to assist them. This way the funds dispersed can be tracked and every anti slaughter group/individual can show that they not only believe in anti slaughter but can provide evidence that they are doing their utmost to keep every unwanted horse/pony/burro from being abandoned and starved. Saying you don’t want to see a horse killed and backing it are entirely different. Quite frankly all I see are people crying how cruel it is and yet there are many rescues out there begging for volunteers and monetary assistance. Maybe HSUS and PETA officers, their lobbyists, attorneys, politicians they have in their pockets, and all the anti slaughter individuals should stop talking and start acting! Standing on the legislature floor, sitting behind a desk, writing a letter is entirely different from getting manure on your pants and dirt under your nails and delivering feed taking care of these animals. Isn’t it about time everyone admitted that killing the horse processing in the US is exactly what is killing the horse industry, and created a crisis of abuse, neglect and abandonment?! I applaud Iowa and all other states who have plants pending approval for taking a stand against this gross negligence!

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Do you imagine that only one or the other are viable strategies?

      Do you imagine that none of the entities you mention engage in rescue activities?

      I find that ludicrous. It sounds like you’re saying ‘yah yah yah I don’t care what you do as long as it doesn’t interfere with what I do.’ That’s a weak argument, imo. Most complex problems have complex solutions, and ignoring one facet of this issue seems unlikely to improve anything. I don’t think increased slaughter for human consumption is the answer, myself, any more than the problem of stray dogs and cats should be solved by killing them for people to eat.

      I kinda think you didn’t read this piece, and just want a platform to advocate your position as pro-horse-slaughterer. My point is that breeding animals for the purpose of killing is problematic no matter which animals we’re talking about. So. Yeah. We’re not going to agree.

      I don’t think the American public tends to agree with your perspective; and I’m glad of it. Horse slaughterhouses don’t have grand goals towards alleviating horse-suffering: that’s bunk, and we’re not stupid. It’s about the almighty dollars that stand to be made from the extra butchery, and that’s just not a good enough argument.

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