Horse Slaughter for Human Consumption

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Brief Summary of Horse Slaughter for Human Consumption
Christen Wiser (2013)


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.


Overview of Horse Slaughter for Human Consumption
Christen Wiser (2013)

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.  


Related articles

Anti-Horse Slaughter Legislation: Bad for Horses, Bad for Society , Laura Jane Durfee, 84 Ind. L.J. 353 (Winter, 2009).

Just Say Neigh: A Call for Federal Regulations of Byproduct Disposal by the Equine Industry , Mary W. Craig, 12 Animal L. 193 (2005).

Protecting Equine Rescue From Being Put Out To Pasture: Whether Ranches Dedicated To Abused, Abandoned, And Aging Horses May Qualify For "Agricultural" Classifications Under Florida's Greenbelt Law , Michael T. Olexa, Katherine Smallwooda, and Joshua A. Cossey, 16 Drake J. Agric. L. 69 (2011).

Related cases

On August 2, 2013, Chief District Judge Maria Christina Armijo for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico granted Front Range’s request for a temporary restraining order against the USDA, enjoining the USDA and the FSIS from inspecting Responsible Transportation and Valley Meat Co.  The court further ordered that Valley Meat Co. and Responsible Transportation are enjoined from the commercial processing of horses. ( Front Range Equine v. Vilsack , Case 1:13-CV-00639-MCA-RHS, available at  , amended by, ; see also ). 

Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo, S.A. de C.V. v. Curry , 476 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2007). The issue on appeal was whether Texas' prohibition of horsemeat for human consumption was preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) or was in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause.  The court held that the statute was not preempted or in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause.

Related laws

Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) , U.S.C. §§ 601 et seq.

Table of State Horse Slaughter/Horse Meat Laws

Related Links

Web Center:

Horse Topic Area

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act Topic Area

External Links:

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service informational page on horse slaughter:

Anti-Horse Slaughter Websites:

Kaufman Zoning:

Animals' Angels:

Front Range Equine Rescue:


Equine Welfare Alliance:

Pro-Horse Slaughter Websites:

A Million Horses:

American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) position on horse slaughter:


United Horsemen:

United Organizations of the Horse:

Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada:

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