“Horse meat is often described as tender, lean, slightly sweet to the taste, and somewhere between grass-fed beef and really good elk or venison in taste. It is prized by mothers as baby food in places like Italy and Japan, and especially sought after by athletes as a lean, high-protein, red meat perfect for building body condition.”
So proclaims Sue Wallis, chairman of the International Equine Business Association and CEO of Unified Equine, whose plans to open a slaughter plant in Rockville, MO, feature heavy promotion of horse meat as “safe, nutritious and delicious” (including a Facebook horse meat recipe page) and all while sidestepping one of horse meat’s less appetizing virtues as a foodie experience: Cancer.
Contaminated horse meat has existed for years, but so far, neither the USDA or FDA have done much to address it, either by alerting consumers or using the government’s muscle to keep tainted horses and horsemeat out of the food supply.
Origins of a Public Health Hazard
Americans don’t eat horse meat, so its health hazards have long been confined to export markets. Last year, 130,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered, their meat sold as has been happening since the late ’70s to restaurants and consumers overseas.
That it has been produced for the last five years in Canada and Mexico instead of the U.S. has complicated an otherwise straightforward food-safety concern: the prevalence of a legal drug in the U.S. horse population that causes fatal cancers in humans. The U.S. official response has been classic: out of sight, out of mind.
All that is about to change, however, thanks to a handful of U.S. Congressmen and lobbyists who started agitating to reopen U.S. horse slaughter plants even before the last three facilities closed in 2007. They succeeded in November, 2011, laying the groundwork for Ms. Wallis’ announcement of the plant she is working to open in the tiny, dirt-poor town of Rockville (2010 population:166), ostensibly within the next few months.
Beware the Trojan Horse
The 2011 reinstatement of USDA funding for horse meat inspections has been completely mischaracterized in the news media as an act of Congress instead of the Trojan-pony political scandal that it was. The media has also been negligent in failing to investigate the Trojan horse that the horse-slaughter industry has historically been, and will again become, if the USDA approves inspections of the plant that Ms. Wallis and a few silent investors are now trying to ready in order to grab the horse meat business back from EU plants just over our borders.
The cowboy poetry-writing Ms. Wallis is riding difficult terrain. For starters, her company, Unified Equine, doesn’t yet own the Rockville plant, which closed in 2011 after a recall of 14,000 pounds of beef due to possible e-coli contamination. Unless the USDA agrees to inspect horse meat there, the plant will most likely remain shut, leaving Ms. Wallis to seek out other possible locations to slaughter horses. She may also have to rustle up some new investors, given signs that her main business partner, the Belgian meat packer, Chevideco, appears to have dropped her.
Chevideco is the parent company of Dallas Crown, whose long rap sheet of zoning and environmental violations in Kaufman, TX, and decades-long abuse of the legal system at the local, state and Federal level, ended up costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars before the slaughter plant was finally closed under state law. The loss of Chevideco would be a huge blessing to U.S. taxpayers, but it would be a setback for Unified Equine, which has no experience in commercial meat packing, no capital or assets, no web site and no office, officers or staff to speak of, save Sue Wallis herself.
This is also true of the International Equine Business Association, one of many organizations Ms. Wallis has founded that lobbies for the return of U.S. horse slaughter and supplements her salary as a Wyoming state legislator. Wallis’ various executive titles keep her busy: devising food-safety protocols and humane certification standards; sharing horse meat recipes on Facebook; writing a 98-page brochure (“Americans Eat Horses”) intended for distribution to USDA head, Tom Vilsack, the members of Congress and “the American people;” and talking to the press. No mention of cancer in all of that, of course.
Drugs, Cancer and the Media
Ms. Wallis’ talent for PR is notable, garnering five to ten news articles per day over the last two weeks, most of which echo her “high-protein, low-fat” health claims (along with other promises of jobs and “humane processing of horses”) without doing much fact-checking.
Good fact-checking is essential when it comes to horse slaughter, especially the long list of drugs present in U.S. horse meat, including Phenylbutazone, which causes cancers that are fatal to humans, particularly babies.
Phenylbutazone (or “bute”), is a painkiller used legally by more than 85% of U.S. horse owners to treat everyday soreness and inflammation, but banned completely in food-producing animals, including horses, by the Food and Drug Administration and related agencies in Canada, the UK, and the EU. Interestingly, in 1949 it was used to treat gout and rheumatoid arthritis in humans, but was later banned when its carcinogenic effects were discovered.
In their report, Association of phenylbutazone usage with horses bought for slaughter: A public health risk, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Dr. Nicolas Blondeau and Dr. Ann Marini describe Phenylbutazone’s adverse effects on humans such as aplastic anemia and leukemia.
Their lengthy 2010 study, which appeared in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, analyzes the presence of bute in slaughter horses; the government’s inadequate drug testing methodology; and the USDA’s failure to ensure the removal of the vast majority of horses treated with banned substances from the food chain, among other topics.
Ms. Wallis and several horse industry professionals loudly challenged the report’s findings, arguing that safe withdrawal periods exist for every drug and that drug testing already conducted by slaughter houses can safely protect consumers.
Rebuttals from Dr. Marini appeared in Food and Toxicology, and in Horseback Magazine, stating that withdrawal times may exist for many drugs, but none exist for Phenylbutazone. She also stated that while it’s true that the U.S. does set safe levels for many contaminants in food, it does not establish safe levels for carcinogens.
No doubt, this is why bottles, tubes and other packages of bute all carry prominent warning labels and why the EU requires drug history “passports” for all slaughter horses within its borders from the age of 6 months, a program that will be extended to U.S. horses slaughtered for EU consumption in 2013.
It also explains why Bouvry Exports and Richelieu Meat, two Canadian slaughterhouses, recently stopped accepting U.S. Thoroughbreds—the only breed whose drug records can be traced, thanks to the Jockey Club registry. Still left intact, however, is the large loophole in U.S. regulations, through which thousands of truckloads of U.S. horses, including many Thoroughbreds have driven unimpeded for as long as there have been slaughterhouses either inside or outside the U.S.
The EU’s proposed “drug usage” passport may very well succeed in disqualifying the majority of American horses for slaughter when implemented next summer. The USDA may well act to protect the public instead of the slaughterhouses, and refuse Ms. Wallis the inspection she’ll need to do business in Missouri, or elsewhere. Or they can settle for the status quo leave the loophole intact, fund inspections and hope the media and the public don’t catch on.
UPDATE: At 12:10 pm, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ag Approps voted in favor of the Moran Amendment, which defunds inspections for horse slaughter plants for Fiscal Year 2013, beginning this coming Fall. Without USDA inspections, horse slaughter in the U.S. is essentially off the table. But the export of tens of thousands of U.S. horses will continue to Canada and Mexico, the drug loopholes intact. - Vickery Eckhoff, Forbes Magazine
Horse Meat Info & Nutritional Benefits:
Horses have long been domesticated as an animal for draft, ride and a food source, and are still very important in many countries. In some countries including Japan and Korea, horsemeat is considered a delicacy. Horse bones have also been used as a traditional medicine for bone diseases including bone fracture and arthritis in Korea. In recent years, horsemeat consumption has steadily increased with increasing number of horses being raised on Jeju island.
A Korean study was conducted to determine the nutritional characteristics of horsemeat and bone meal in comparison with those of beef and pork presented by Dietary Reference Intakes For Koreans. Longissimus muscle and large metacarpal bone samples were collected from 20 fattened Jeju horses. Muscle samples were subjected to proximate analysis, assays for fatty acid profile and minerals, and bone samples to mineral assays.
Horsemeat had similar levels of protein (21.1 vs 21.0 or 21.1%) and lower levels of fat (6.0 vs 14.1 or 16.1%) compared with beef or pork, respectively. Horsemeat had much higher levels of palmitoleic (8.2 vs 4.4 or 3.3%) and α-linolenic (1.4 vs 0.1 or 0.6%) acids than beef or pork, respectively. Linoleic acid was much higher in horsemeat (11.1%) and pork (10.1%) than in beef (1.6%). PUFA:SFA and n-6:n-3 ratios in horsemeat were 0.29 and 10.2, respectively. There were no big differences in mineral contents between horsemeat, beef and pork. For daily recommended mineral intakes of male adults (Dietary Reference Intakes For Koreans), phosphorus, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc and copper can be provided up to 24, 2.5, 6.7, 21, 26 and 40%, respectively, by 100 g raw horsemeat, but calcium and manganese levels are negligible. Horse cannon bone had much higher mineral contents especially in calcium (10,193 mg/100 g), phosphorus (5,874 mg/100 g) and copper (0.79 mg/100 g). Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and retinol contents were 0.20, 0.21, 1.65 mg/100 g and 30 µg/100 g, respectively. But ascorbic acid and beta-carotene were not detected. Our data demonstrated that higher levels of palmitoleic and α-linolenic acid in horsemeat than in beef and pork may be beneficial for human health. Horsemeat and bone meal are a good source of some minerals and vitamins. - Chong-Eon Lee, Pil-Nam Seong, Woon-Young Oh, Moon-Suck Ko, Kyu-Il Kim, and Jae-Hong Jeong
It seems if there is such thing as pasture raised horse that would be the better way to go if choosing to eat horse meat. Conventional horse meat seems to be full of industrial medical grade steroids & antibiotics. -Michael Organic