This overview focuses on horsemeat for human consumption, with a special look at its status in the U.S. It details the expiration of the federal "ban" on horse slaughter that existed from 2007 to 2011. Recently, federal appropriations omitted the horsemeat inspection defunding provision, allowing the resumption of horse slaughter in the U.S.
Whether or not legislation should permit domestic horse slaughter is a controversial issue in the United States. In the U.S., a population of just over 10 million horses plays the dual role of companion animal and livestock. The American horsemeat market lay largely overseas in Belgium, France, and Japan, which consider horse a delicacy, or otherwise in Italy, Russia, and Switzerland, where it serves as a beef alternative. Since the year 2000, the number of American horses slaughtered for human consumption each year has wavered between 66,000 and 170,000. In 2007, three federal courts recognized legislation that effectively prohibited the sale of horsemeat for human consumption. The resulting ban on domestic horse slaughter displaced three existing horse slaughter plants and American horse slaughter shifted to Canada and Mexico. On November 18, 2011, federal legislation banning horse slaughter lapsed, prompting a renewed interest in horse slaughter advocacy. The debate over horse slaughter is a composite of agricultural industry, animal welfare, constitutional, environmental, health, and regulatory concerns.
People have been eating horses for over 400,000 years. Horsemeat was easily incorporated into the diet of nomadic and agricultural societies, but with domestication, horses often became more valuable as a means of transportation and labor. Other cultures eat horsemeat as an alternative to more conventional meats and some countries, like the U.S., never embraced horsemeat and consider eating horses to be taboo. To this day, about 1 billion people or 16% of humans, eat horsemeat.
Many issues surround horse slaughter. Horses are expensive animals to maintain, so there tends to be a continuous crop of “unwanted horses.” Causes of the unwanted horse problem stem from circumstances specific to each horse and owner, backyard breeders, failed or retired racehorses, rodeos, and the nurse mare and Premarin industries, which create a glut of mares and “byproduct” foals. If there is no apparent buyer for a horse, the owner may turn to slaughter and euthanasia as the most convenient solution. Slaughter and euthanasia are distinguishable because slaughter is imposed to harvest products from the animal whereas euthanasia (which means “good death”) is meant to avoid pain and distress to a pet or unhealthy animal. Many consider the cost of euthanasia and disposal to be part of responsible horse ownership, but for others, the cost is prohibitive and slaughter is more compelling. However, there is some debate over whether horses’ dispositions are suitable for commercial slaughter practices, which are designed for cattle. Additionally, this process treats horses, accustomed to being handled as pets, like commodities.
From 2007 to 2011, federal appropriations bills effectively banned horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States. When funding for horse slaughter facility inspections was eliminated in 2011, horse slaughterhouses could no longer sell federally approved horsemeat, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (FMIA). Additionally, state laws and local ordinances supplement the FMIA and concurrent federal horse slaughter laws. This has created legal conflicts between state and federal law due to federal preemption doctrine. This is exacerbated because courts have clarified only a portion of preemption and conflict issues regarding horse slaughter. For example, in National Meat Association v. Harris , decided in 2012, the Supreme Court determined that the FMIA preempted state law once the animal arrives on slaughterhouse premises. However, in 2007, the Supreme Court denied review of two Circuit Court opinions, which upheld Illinois and Texas legislation banning horse slaughter.
The legal status of horse slaughter changed on November 18, 2011 when President Obama signed the 112th Congress’ Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, H.R. 2112;Pub.L. 112-55. This federal appropriations bill omitted the horsemeat inspection defunding provision. In essence, federal law now permits domestic horse slaughter for human consumption, but regulations to administer the required FMIA inspections are being contested in a pending trial, Front Range Equien Rescue v. Vilsack. The court must decide whether USDA regulations requisite for the resumption of horse slaughter complied with agency and environmental laws. Meanwhile, proposed appropriations and slaughter ban bills would re-ban the practice if passed by Congress in 2014.
No commercial horse slaughter plants have operated in the United States since Cavel’s plant closed at midnight on June 29, 2007. Notably, the 2007 ban did not prevent the export of live horses for the purpose of slaughter. Horsemeat companies have since shipped approximately 150,000 horses a year, to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered for human consumption.
The U.S. now faces the issue of whether to permit or prohibit domestic horse slaughter for human consumption. The most conspicuous options for the current legislature would be to accept horse slaughter and avoid the details; embrace it and enhance its standards for humane methods, the environment, and export; or adopt an affirmative horse slaughter ban, such as the Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2013 (S.A.F.E.), H.R. 1094. However, the status of proposed FY 2014 agricultural appropriations bills would suggest that the most likely legislation will be a renewed temporary inspection defunding provision and effective federal ban. In any case, the legislative and regulatory atmosphere regarding horse slaughter is permeated with controversy and remains in flux.