There was a thought provoking blog published by The Huffington Post – Marc Vetri: Humanity And Justice For All regarding the topic of horse meat. Disappointingly the current massive Horse Meat Scandal has put horse meat in the spotlight with curious foodies considering it for their next meal. While I find the topic repugnant, as a meat eater, it would be hypocritical of me to dismiss it without careful regard.
The relationship humans have with horses is rooted in history. Those roots grow deep. Horses became our partners. Much like dogs, they provided us with opportunities that we wouldn’t have had without them. We could travel farther and faster while carrying heavy burdens. We could till ground that would have been impossible without them. We could travel in weather that would previously leave us housebound. They provided us with sport and entertainment. They provided us with the ability to round up other animals to raise for food. While working together, deep relationships were born. Yes, they are stunning to watch but the bond we share with them goes far beyond basic aesthetics.
Chances are at some point, just about everyone has enjoyed a horse in one respect or another. Movies, horse races, grand prix event or rodeos – all would share the joy of horses. Many have gone further by owning, riding, competing or working with horses in some way. Ask someone about their horse and brace yourself for a deluge of proud stories.
How could we possibly eat these noble beasts? If you take the emotional attachment out of it, technically we should. They’re herbivores like cattle. Horses aren’t that different.
Two key differences: Horses are not raised for food and our food system is not geared to handle them.
Not Raised For Food
Marc Vetri stated “If I were to find a livestock farmer who was raising them humanely, I would consider it.” However it goes far beyond simply raising them humanely.
Why not raise horses in the same manner as cattle? In general, they’re harder to handle. Unhandled horses bite and kick not only each other, but people as well. They are a fight or flight animal and are very good at both. Round ups of horses are much more difficult due to their speed, far beyond any cow. Add their strength, power and height, handling them isn’t easy and accommodating them isn’t possible on every farm. They’re harder on property and harder on fences. “Hard keepers” by cattle standards, the vast majority of horses need supplemental feeding to stay in good condition. By their very nature, horses aren’t good candidates for food production animals. There are easier more placid stock to raise.
Horses are currently handled from birth, halter broke, trained to accept grooming, leading, farriers, veterinarians and eventually a rider or to drive. No one with the intent of sending an animal for meat wants to invest this much personal time or emotion. While it would make them easier and safer to handle, the logistics of time and costs are not feasible. With the average herd size of cattle in Canada being 61 head, imagine the time demands on keeping that many horses regularly handled and socialized. It cannot be done.
During the process of horse ownership they are often medicated. Horses tend to be exposed to more illnesses and injury due to their work. Drugs used for fertility, performance, pain killers, illness or other medical issues are common. The vast majority of these drugs would never be used in food producing animals. Due to horses having various roles of work, the introduction of these medications should be assumed. Severe adverse reactions in humans, cancer causing agents and hormonal therapies should never enter our food chain. There is never the intent to send a horse for meat, so the drugs chosen are never considered for human consumption safety before they are administered.
Phenylbutazone is a common anti-inflammatory drug administered to horses that is not safe for humans. It can cause “…severe adverse effects such as suppression of white blood cell production and aplastic anemia.” This drug has also been found in some of the horse meat scandal samples. There are only so many carcasses tested. Of those, only so many tests can be run. Considering the amount of ecoli and salmonella cases found in recent years, do we really want to trust our health regarding an unknown cocktail of drugs that may or may not be tested for?
Food System Not Geared Towards Horses
Horses enter the food chain via auctions. When a cow enters an auction, they’re being purchased either by meat buyers (in which case they go to slaughter) or to other farms for breeding programs and eventual slaughter. Either way, their intent for food and treatment as such remains intact. Horses however come from every walk of life (racing, pleasure riding, competitive jumping, draft, companions, etc.), at every age, in various levels of health. Hay Shortage Victims, many horses are landing in auction that would typically be home safe in a barn. Other horses have failed to respond to medical treatments and are being given up on. Many times, the money has simply run out. It is safe to say that no horse in North America is born with the intent of going for meat.
In order to garner the highest price, many are drugged in hopes of covering obvious lameness, behavioural issues or due to their alien surroundings simply just to calm them. Well behaved, good looking, sound animals are hopefully picked up by new owners who take them home to their barns. Those owners pay more so they are catered to. For sellers, there is a financial impact of not drugging. Sometimes a horse might show a bit of a spark in some way, in which case they’ll be purchased, a little TLC given so that they can hope to raise a better price in another auction. Horses in poor condition, injured, not eye catching, excessively shy or even aggressive have little hope of going to a home. Those horses are sold to meat buyers for bottom dollar, intended for slaughter. Any other meat animal would be banned from entering the food chain if they had these same drugs administered to them. However, the people sending the horses to the slaughter houses wouldn’t have administered the drugs or necessarily have any knowledge of them.
This is the criteria of your possible dinner meat: ill, poor condition and quite possibly drugged. In a society of demanding the highest of quality, free range, antibiotic free, grass and grain fed meats, this source doesn’t qualify in the least. There is no quality control on selection at all.
Food animals are transported in large groups via stock trailers in order to decrease costs. Again, by their very nature as fight or flight animals, groups of horses in close quarters are dangerous. Stress is a key factor. They kick, panic, slip and will fall without proper support. Injuries are often severe. These trailers don’t have provisions for food or water and many will collapse from exhaustion or dehydration or even arrive dead. Due to their very nature, they require a more refined mode of transportation in order to ensure their welfare. In general, the largest safe horse trailers only carry up to 6 horses.
The slaughter system is tailored to cattle and swine. Again, the nature of the horse causes undue stress and panic. Kill methods approved for horses (generally) are either via gunshot or captive bolt. Horses are ‘head shy’, meaning they don’t handle close handling of their heads or things being held by their heads without a fight. Gunshots miss the mark. Captive bolt often requires to be ‘stunned’ several times due to their panic levels. Horse advocates suggest that due to their nature, horses cannot be slaughtered humanely.
No. I would not advocate horse meat. Horses cannot be accommodated humanely at a commercial level for food either by transport or slaughter. The meat itself is not safe for human consumption due to the routine drugs administered to them. Without a sustainable method taking effort, cost and safety to both horse and human to raise them purely for food, there is not a feasible food production model for them.
There is no shortfall of meats available for human consumption. Simply because we physically can does not mean we should. At some point, the line needs to be drawn. Even with the emotional attachment to horses taken out of the equation, horse meat has no place on our dinner plates.