Following the mid-January announcement that European inspectors had discovered horse DNA in “beef” products, diners across the continent pushed away from the table. Even gastronomes in such horsemeat-eating countries as Italy, France, Belgium, and Switzerland
had reason for anxiety: some of the meat may have come from the U.S., an unintended consequence of the global trade cycle—and a well-intentioned effort to end the domestic slaughter of horses.
Beginning in 2006, the U.S. Congress, bowing to pressure from animal rights groups, defunds federal food inspection at slaughterhouses specializing in horsemeat. Without federal certification, horsemeat processed in the U.S. can no longer be sold into the largest export market, the European Union.
That congressional effort, designed to end the slaughter of horses, literally drives the business elsewhere. Horses—family pets, racing animals, or captured in the wilds on federal land—are transported to Canadian and Mexican packing facilities.
“U.S. horses were slaughtered in greater numbers in Canada and Mexico from 2007 onward, with the meat exported to the European Union (EU) and Russia,” Huffington Post reported.
Marketplace.org traced the journey of one prize-winning horse, Silky Shark, from American racetracks to a foreign slaughterhouse. “Silky Shark was everything you’d want in a racehorse,” said his former owner. “He was vibrant, fiery, a very happy horse.” But when the owner “fell on tough times, he sold Silky Shark to a buyer he trusted. Then the horse was resold again and again, eventually winding up in a Canadian slaughterhouse.”
Like many competition horses, Silky Shark was shot up with the equine anti-inflammatory, phenylbutazone, or bute. It’s legal and common in veterinary circles, and harmless to horses. But in humans, bute may cause cancer.
Because Canadian slaughterhouses are held to rigorous standards where bute is concerned, U.S. horses were increasingly moved to Mexico because, some say, “Mexico does not test for phenylbutazone contamination,” the Huffington Post reported.
European Union (EU) regulators found horsemeat in 5 percent of all beef meals they tested. One half of 1 percent of all beef showed trace amounts of bute in the horsemeat—levels low enough that they are “a matter of food fraud and not of food safety.” Said European Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent. “You would have to eat hundreds of horse burgers for months to have problems.”
The regulators speculate that criminal enterprises helped ship illicit—and cheap—horsemeat, including some from Mexico, through otherwise legitimate European slaughterhouses.
How could that happen? The European Commission “believed the EU had one of the best food safety systems in the world but it relied on a complex web of suppliers,” the BBC reports.
That complexity is the system’s weakness. “If a Swedish company makes a lasagna by using French, Dutch and Cypriot firms to source Romanian meat via Luxembourg, then the supply chain is long enough to be corruptible,” writes the (London) Daily Telegraph’s Fraser Nelson. “Long business supply chains are corruptible and can hide a multitude of crimes if no one checks for fraud or criminal activity.”
No horsemeat penetrated Iceland’s supply chain. But don’t ask Icelandic business execs for advice. Investigators there say they found something else: in some cases, products labeled “beef” were 100 percent vegetarian.
In March, New Mexico businessman Rick de los Santos sued the federal government to certify his new horse slaughterhouse in Roswell. “I’ve seen 130,000 horses a year on their way to Mexico—they go right through our backyard—and I wanted to tap into the market,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I could have hired 100 people by now. Everyone in our community agrees we need this type of service. And I’m tired of waiting.”
Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma isn’t waiting. In March, she signed a bill legalizing “the humane, regulated processing of horses.” Significantly, Fallin noted that her measure, “which takes effect Nov. 1, strictly prohibits selling horsemeat for human consumption in Oklahoma.”
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