Once horses bound for slaughter reach the slaughterhouses, it's not clear whether they’re being humanely killed. Most slaughterhouses use captive bolt guns to drive a metal rod into the center of the horse’s head after the horses are herded through chutes into the “kill area.”
“Horses are transported across the border under U.S. Department of Agriculture supervision, and they go to European-sanctioned plants, meeting European standards,” said Dr. Tom Lenz, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and former chair of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, who’s visited Mexican slaughterhouses. “They’re humanely euthanized, as well as what we saw in this country.”
But others disagree, saying the fight-or-flight nature of a horse makes it more likely for problems to occur during slaughter. If their heads aren’t held, the horses can spin away from the bolt gun at the last second. If the floors are too slick, they can slide around and struggle before the bolt gun can reach them. There are rumors of Mexican slaughterhouses where knives are used to sever the horses’ spinal columns, an inexact and painful procedure for them.
“The potential for the process to be botched is just too great. When you’re handling horses through chutes like livestock, they freak, they panic,” said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “They often flip over in these conveyances.”
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an outspoken advocate for humane slaughter, has visited slaughterhouses in Canada and noted that lack of consistent oversight causes problems with the system.
“When I’m standing there next to them, they do just fine,” Grandin said. “When my back’s turned, they don’t. I look at videos, and it’s not working fine. A horse plant is capable of working fine, but it gets down to management, equipment maintenance and training. I want video auditing, and I want it streamed out to the Internet. You could watch it any time you want, live, to make sure it’s not just lip service that the plants are running humanely.”
Lt. Col. Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, a member of the AHC Horse Welfare Committee and a proponent of re-opening domestic slaughter plants, said there are more safeguards for humane horse slaughter than there are for other animals, if it’s done under USDA oversight.
“[The slaughterhouses] will be even better if they re-open them here,” he said. “We all love horses, and if we didn’t have to slaughter any, that would be great with me. But the main thing has to be the welfare of the horse. People are trying to feel good about themselves by saying they want to protect the animals, but worse things are happening to them now. There’s no question the welfare of the horse has deteriorated since they stopped horse plants here. You’re against slaughter? You’re willing to let horses suffer? If it’s got to be done, it should be done professionally.”
You Sure You Want To Eat That?
An additional problem with the current slaughter standards involves the drugs horses consume before they’re processed for meat. Horses coming off the track are frequently dosed with phenylbutazone, Lasix and other drugs, some of which are harmful for humans. Even the average pleasure horse has probably received dewormer, vaccines and some bute in his life.
The Food and Drug Administration classified bute as a carcinogen in 2003 and stated in a report: “Use in horses is limited to use in horses not intended for food. There are currently no approved uses of phenylbutazone in food-producing animals.”
“You shouldn’t be eating horse meat,” said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at the Tufts Cummings School Of Veterinary Medicine (Mass.), who conducted the 2010 study: Association Of Phenylbutazone Usage With Horses Bought For Slaughter: A Public Health Risk . “It’s loaded with drugs. They’re using drugs that say right on the label shouldn’t be given to horses that might be for human consumption. We followed them in one study; the number of horses who had bute and ended up going straight to slaughter was unbelievable. These are not things you want in your food.”
The meat is occasionally tested at random, but there’s no guarantee that when you sit down for a horse steak in France the animal you’re eating wasn’t given any number of potentially harmful medications before its death. Most horses slaughtered for meat in the EU were raised as food, not as pets or show animals.
“The European Union has for years had in place regulations in Europe regarding the administration of drugs for any horse in the food chain,” said Dane. “They have a passport system where the horse’s whole drug medication history is documented, and once it’s given bute, it can never enter the food chain. It allowed horses from North American to not follow those same regulations.”
Though an EU regulation was enacted July 31, 2010, requiring all horse meat imported from outside countries be free of certain drugs and carry a 180-day withdrawal period on others, many suspect shippers are certifying the horses are clean without knowledge or documentation of the drugs they’ve received.
But the restrictions are about to get even tighter. Effective July 31, 2013, a new regulation will require all horsemeat from non-EU countries to come with lifetime medication records. This has the potential to revolutionize, if not end, slaughter in North America.
“I don’t know how [North America] would comply with it,” said Dane. “It will be interesting to see how the countries exporting horse meat now are able to comply with it and what the EU is going to do to make them comply. We don’t see any evidence that Canada or Mexico is moving rapidly forward to do it.”
This is the third article in a four-part series , which will run every Wednesday through Oct. 26. The original version of this article was published in the July 18 & 25, 2011, Horse Care Issue. If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing . Check out the table of contents  to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.