People have been eating horses for over 400,000 years. Neanderthals were hippophagists. They stalked pony-sized herds, traversing the Eurasian steppes and savannahs in the Stone Age, hunting for horseflesh. Prehistoric nomadic and agricultural societies also incorporated horsemeat into their diets, but with domestication, horses gained value as a means of transportation and as beasts of burden rather than for their flesh alone. Modern cultures may turned to horsemeat during hard times or adopted it as an alternative to more conventional meats, practices which became rooted in tradition over time.
However, some countries, like the United States, generally consider eating horses to be taboo. For Americans, horse slaughter for human consumption is a controversial topic. Where, as in the U.S., horses play the dual role of companion animal and livestock, horsemeat is not a compelling protein source. This was reflected by the legislature when Congress declared American mustangs, “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
While the U.S. permitted domestic horse slaughter in previous decades, a change in the federal budget’s funding to agencies effectively banned horse slaughter in 2007. By eliminating funding for inspection of horse slaughter facilities, Congress prevented horse slaughterhouses from meeting requirements under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (FMIA). States have also enacted their own horse slaughter bans. Since 2007, when state and federal legislation closed the only three operating domestic horse slaughter plants, there has been no commercial horse slaughter for human consumption in the U.S.
Whether the legislature should maintain the recent status quo is an issue surrounded in controversy. Domestic horse slaughter proponents find that permissive legislation would provide the dual purpose of disposing of excess horses and creating an opportunity for profit. Opponents contend that horses are pets and, due to the horse’s disposition, commercial slaughter is particularly brutal and inhumane. The existence of horse slaughter in the U.S. will be determined by federal and state legislation.
Currently, there is no federal ban on horse slaughter, but a measure to renew a temporary ban of domestic horse slaughter is proposed for fiscal year 2014. A handful of states independently ban horse slaughter within their borders. Versions of outright horse slaughter bans and prohibitions of the transport or sale of horses and horsemeat for human consumption have been repeatedly introduced to the legislature. While they have had great support, they have also met much opposition and have never passed. The legislative state of horse slaughter for human consumption remains uncertain.