Horse Slaughter: The Truth Revealed, Part One — History
(The following is a series of copyrighted articles on the history, process, legislation and people playing a role in horse slaughter in the United States. This is a collaborative effort among a lot of people who have volunteered their time and effort to push back the curtain of propaganda and to bring the truth forward.
Jerry Finch, Habitat for Horses)
Revealing the Truth
Most Americans are unaware that their horses are being slaughtered by the thousands so the meat can feed the palates of overseas diners in countries like Belgium, France, Italy and Japan.
Show horses, racehorses, foals born as a byproduct of the Premarin© industry (a female hormone replacement drug), wild horses, camp horses, carriage horses, rodeo horses, and family horses all fall prey to this detestable international industry.
Despite claims to the contrary, most of the slaughtered horses are in good-to-excellent health, yet they are inhumanely killed and their meat shipped overseas to satisfy the demands of foreigners for “American Horse Steaks.”
A scientific poll conducted in California showed that 70% of those polled support a ban on horse slaughter. Non-scientific polls show up to 90% in favor of banning horse slaughter. Amazingly, 60% of those polled were not aware of the horse slaughter industry. More recent nationwide polls indicate that at least 80% of the American public is opposed to horse slaughter.
Nearly 20 years ago, there were up to 14 horse slaughter plants operating in the United States. The number was gradually reduced due to diminishing foreign demand for horse meat starting in the early 1990s.
Today, due to a mixture of federal USDA inspection appropriation cuts (now rescinded) and state legislation and court rulings, there are no horse slaughter plants currently operating in the US.
However, last year alone (2011), 133,241 American horses were shipped across country borders to be slaughtered.
The same foreign companies that operated in the US also own plants in Mexico and Canada, where they can continue brutally killing horses with nearly total impunity; and with each passing month, the death toll keeps climbing.
Although working classes around the globe have been badly hit by an economic crisis, this recession has not been enough to quench the lust for horsemeat among the well-to-do in countries where it is considered a haute cuisine staple. Sadly, horsemeat consumption is on the rise because once again it is trendy. The flesh is surrounded by a halo of mythical properties and hype, promoted by horsemeat purveyors who are not mentioning the health risks to ignorant, unsuspecting individuals who eat it.
Habitat for Horses has played a part in several attempts to stop this needless destruction of our horses and will continue to do so until horse slaughter ends, both in and from the US. We invite you, as a member, to work within the legal system to put an end to slaughter. We also invite you to learn, in the following paragraphs, the background and true facts surrounding this unnecessary evil.
The Origins of Horse Slaughter in the US
The horse slaughter industry is a somber, secretive one. It neither likes nor withstands public scrutiny of its activities.
Horses have always been regarded in America as companion and sport animals, work partners and trusty war comrades, carrying us across the country and making our very country possible. Icons of freedom, symbols of our history, they have never been food items nor bred to become an agribusiness commodity intended to be industrially-processed to satisfy wealthy palates abroad.
This view matches with the findings of various nationwide and state-specific scientifically conducted polls on horse slaughter carried out over the years. They have concluded that 70% of Americans oppose horse slaughter and do not think horses are raised for food or fiber. In some states, such as Virginia or Texas, up to 77% of citizens polled were opposed to horse slaughter; they either supported a federal ban or were opposed to overturning state law that banned the trade of horsemeat.
Yet, most people are as unaware of the slaughtering of US horses in neighboring countries as they are that US-based horse slaughter ever existed. For example, the Texas poll revealed that up to 89% of respondents were not aware that horses were slaughtered in the US—this despite the fact that their own state housed two of the last three US horse slaughter plants. Some older Americans still associate horse slaughter with “taking ole Bob to the glue factory.” That practice stopped decades ago.
Here are the facts: According to official United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, 92% of the horses arriving at slaughter plants are in good or excellent condition—and are less than eight years old. This contradicts the claims from horse slaughter proponents that the horses killed are old, sick, skinny, or infirm and that thus horse slaughter (or, more accurately, US-based horse slaughter, for the practice has not yet been federally banned) is necessary to dispose of these animals. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
Horses in America are not treated as food animals. They are more akin to companion animals. However, due to the vast amount of land available and a series of past tax incentives, horses in America—and their upkeep until their optimal slaughter age of seven-to-15 years—are relatively cheap compared with the cost of raising equines in Belgium, the Netherlands or Switzerland, where there is not as much land (or rural acreage available) and where, thus, the horses’ “head” price is higher.
It is not that horses don’t exist in these horse-eating countries. Indeed, some horses in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are raised for the sole purpose of slaughter. Most, though, are procured from the UK, Spain and Eastern European countries. It’s uneconomical to keep the horses until their optimal killing age. Consumers in northern Europe don’t want to eat the white meat of very young horses, whose flesh is sold to a narrow niche market in southern Italy. Rather, they prefer the red meat of mature horses—meaning the horses have to be fed for several years before they are killed.
Adding to the cost factor is the fact that the horses cannot be treated with drugs commonly used in horse husbandry (phenylbutazone, banamine, antibiotics, hormones and assorted NSAIDs); the European Union’s strict food safety regulations prohibit animals with such drugs in their system from entering the food chain.
Too, European horse-eaters consider the quality of meat from horses raised specifically for slaughter to be inferior to the flesh of the most sought-after breed—namely, the American Quarter Horse (with its muscular configuration).
For these reasons, a host of European (mostly Belgian) agribusiness multinationals established a network of slaughter plants throughout the US, Canada and Mexico during the early 1980’s, with the intention of supplying the vast demand for horse meat in their home countries. Immorally, these companies have deceitfully hyped the product as being “healthy” and “light”—even calling it a weight-loss substitute for beef, despite scientific evidence showing otherwise.
Low horse prices, together with irresponsible breeding practices promoted by the likes of the American Quarter Horse Association (which encourages its members to mass-produce foals every year in order to raise millions of dollars in registration fees), paved the road for the multimillion-dollar horse slaughter industry, which quickly proceeded to parasitize the American horse industry. The industry has caused more abuse, neglect, crime and even lower horse prices across the quality spectrum.
Some claim that horse slaughter arrived and flourished in the US as a consequence of the foot-and-mouth and BSE (“mad cow”) disease outbreaks in Europe. But the fact is that, while the plants certainly played the “health” ball with their customers in the 1980s and early 1990s, they came to the US merely to increase their bottom line. Face it, the US was, for horse killers, the perfect playground, where they could take advantage of ultra-cheap raw material and pump up their already-high profits.
Despite their claims that horse slaughter is a necessary outlet for run-of-the-mill horse owners to humanely euthanize their old, sick or infirm animals, the plants quickly established a cartel of hired contractors of dubious background who specialize in going through auctions to purchase the best-looking, meatier horses in sizeable, fixed quantities (called “quotas”), outbidding normal buyers looking for horses for usual purposes. These contractors sell trailer-loads of horses to the plants at a fixed, higher price than is quoted for individuals selling smaller loads (the latter are, in fact, non-existent, according to slaughter records).
Commonly known as “killer buyers,” the contractors quickly became fixtures at auctions. Their presence created a spiral of abuse, death and continuous law violations that went—and continue to go, in most cases— unpunished, beginning the moment a horse is put in the “slaughter chain” and finishing with a brutal, inhumane, terrorizing death on a filthy slaughterhouse floor.
Moreover, the killer buyers transport these poor horses under appalling conditions, from auction to auction, until they complete their quota, usually driving for hundreds of miles. The horses endure scorching heat or freezing blizzards and are deprived of food, water and rest. They are not separated by gender, age, size, or degree of aggressiveness. These trailers, designed with lower ceilings for cattle, prevent the horses from holding their heads upright during transport, which often causes them severe head, neck and limb injuries.
Because the industry shows total disregard for federal and state animal transport regulations, some horses reach the plants so badly injured they cannot move; others have already expired. In some instances, they are fork-lifted out of the trailer and onto the killing floor or dragged by a chain to the killing chute. This is known as the “last ride.”
Capitalizing on the public’s lack of awareness, the industry successfully promoted a series of ill-conceived tax incentives for horse owners in those two decades. The Belgian-owned plants took advantage of the support of right-wing politicians and the agribusiness lobby by ignoring health, safety, and animal-protection regulations in an effort to minimize production costs. With their established network of purveyors and killer buyers, they were able to supply fresh, healthy horses to as many as 14 US slaughterhouses by the early 1990s.
It is worth noting that US production was not sufficient for wealthy foreigners to satisfy their gluttony for tasty, fancy American Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred meat. So the same foreign owners set up plants in Canada and Mexico. It looked like there were no clouds in the US horse slaughter industry’s future. But things were soon to change.
Suddenly horse meat lost popularity abroad, causing a sharp decrease in demand. Why? Younger Europeans, unlike the older generations, view horses more the way Americans do: as partners, companions, friends.
Also, the 1990s were a relative boom time for the American economy. This allowed recreational horse ownership to increase at 3% to 5% per year, meaning that the kill buyers were forced to bid against recreational horse buyers flush with cash.
These facts, together with awareness campaigns by Europe-based animal protection groups (such as Animals Angels), resulted in fewer people consuming horse meat, even though there was still a niche market for it. At the same time, awareness of the horse slaughter industry and its cruelty increased in the US, and nonprofits organized in order to denounce and eventually try to outlaw the practice and its collateral consequences.
The confluence of these trends ruined, to an extent, the rosy expectations of the despicable horse slaughter industry. Dwindling demand resulted in most US-based plants closing their doors for good, while the long list of their practices, including systematic extermination of wild horses supposedly protected by federal law, started to become known by the American public.
From fourteen plants in 1990, with 345,700 equines killed that year in the US alone, the number fell to only four by 1997. Only three of those four were still in operation the following year, and by 2002 only two were left after the third was destroyed by a fire (false accusations of arson were made against animal rights groups); but that plant reopened two years later.
The three US plants were owned by the three most powerful European meat-production-and-export multinationals: Beltex Corporation, in Fort Worth, Texas, and owned by Belgian Multimeats NV; Dallas Crown, Inc., in Kaufman, Texas, and owned by Belgian conglomerate Chevideco NV; and Cavel International, Inc., in DeKalb, Illinois, and owned by Belgian Velda NV. These three towns came to be known—and condemned—as horse-killing capitals of the United States. Their residents suffered the abusive, noxious consequences of hosting this evil industry.
Meanwhile, the first-ever legislation banning horse slaughter at state level— a California ballot-initiative known as Proposition 6—was passed in 1998, and two years later, Kaufman and Tarrant County District Attorneys Ann Diamond and Tim Curry discovered in Texas’ State Agriculture Code a 1949 law banning trade operations involving horsemeat.
For a time, these three plants managed to survive the temporary decrease in demand, along with the growing legal and legislative pressure on them, which was motivated mainly by grassroots efforts from concerned citizens. Paradoxically, by the time Proposition 6 was passed in 1998—way after the number of horses killed in the US dropped dramatically as a result of the shrinking foreign demand—the first pro-slaughter lobbyists and pundits (paid by both the horse slaughter multinationals and assorted agribusiness lobby groups such as the AQHA and the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association) were starting to disseminate unfounded rumors of horses being dumped and starved by owners who could no longer afford to pay for their upkeep. These stories, which investigations found to be untrue, were an effort to hamper any legislative effort that could endanger the profits of the horse- killing multinationals. Coincidence? We think not.
So don’t be fooled into believing that the horse slaughter corporations came here to do Americans a favor by fixing the so-called “unwanted horse” problem (as slaughter’s proponents and paid-per-word agribusiness lobbyists assert time and again). They only came to our country only to make even more money off of our horses, period.
Unfortunately, foreign demand for horse meat began to recover in 2004 and the practice of killing companion horses to please diners abroad began to once again thrive. However, by then, the plants had to face growing public opposition to horse slaughter as a result of media exposure. In addition, they also had to battle legislative efforts, at both the federal and state levels, to close them down for good and outlaw the practice.
During 2007 the three US-based plants were forced to close for the following reasons:
- new state legislation in Illinois banned horse slaughter
- existing but overlooked state legislation in Texas was finally enforced, which banned the horsemeat trade in that state
- state court rulings upheld those respective state laws
- federal appropriations legislation (since repealed) prevented federal funds from being spent on USDA inspections at the plants (they are mandatory in order for the meat to be exported to Europe)
- a federal court ruling overthrew an “interim final rule” set up at the eleventh hour by the USDA to create an illegal fee-for-inspection scheme that would have allowed the plants to continue operating “as usual”
Nevertheless, the horse-slaughtering corporations, anticipating such an outcome, outsmarted American citizens and quickly moved operations to existing plants in Canada and Mexico—some built specifically for horses (like Multimeats NV in Fresnillo, State of Zacatecas, Mexico), others adapted from old beef packing plants (like Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf and Wolseley, Saskatchewan, Canada, which were used by Velda NV to replace its closed Cavel plant in Illinois).
Overall, since the USDA began to record horse killings in 1985, a total of 3,355,057 horses, ranging from racetrack Thoroughbreds to the nearly extinct wild horse, have been slaughtered in the US alone, and nearly a million more American horses have been exported for slaughter to Canada and Mexico.
Regrettably, the situation today remains nearly unchanged, with more than 100,000 horses being transported every year under unspeakably inhumane conditions for thousands of miles to Canada or central Mexico, all due to the inaction of the US Congress, whose apathetic members, stupefied by the siren songs of big-business lobbyists and similar hired guns, are unable or unwilling to pass a law to end this injustice (bills have been sitting on their desks for almost ten years). Indeed, for most of those years they have not even been able to muster a vote on the House floor.
Currently, there are four horse slaughter plants operating in Canada, all of them EU-approved for export of their meat:
- Les Viandes De La Petite-Nation, Inc., also doing business as Les Cerfs du Boileau in Saint-André-Avellin, Quebec.
- Viande Richelieu, Inc. in Massueville, Quebec.
- Bouvry Export Calgary Ltd. in Fort Macleod, Alberta.
- Canadian Premium Meats, Inc. in Lacombe, Alberta.
In Mexico, there are a similar number of plants in operation, all of them also approved for export by the European Union (in fact, they are the only meat producers in the whole country approved by the EU):
- Cárnicos de Jerez S.A. de C.V. in Jerez de García Salinas, State of Zacatecas, owned by the Dutch Visser & Van Walsum BV.
- Empacadora De Carnes De Fresnillo S.A. De C.V. in Fresnillo, State of Zacatecas, owned by the Belgian Multimeats NV.
- Empacadora De Carnes Unidad Ganadera, S.A. De C.V. in Aguascalientes, operated by a front company called Inter Meats S.A. de C.V., which is in turn owned by Chevideco NV.
- Empacadora Y Ganadera De Camargo S.A. De C.V. in Camargo, State of Chihuahua.
There were three other plants slaughtering horses in Canada, but they closed in the past three years for different reasons. The most remarkable of them was Natural Valley Farms, Inc.—located in Neudorf (slaughtering plant) and Wolseley (processing facility), Sasketchewan. It is a financially-troubled former beef packing operation that was contracted by the Belgian Velda NV to slaughter horses after Velda’s Illinois-based Cavel plant was shut down by court order in June 2007.
Weeks before the Illinois Public Act 095-0002 was upheld by the 7th Circuit United States Court of Appeals on September 2007, forcing Cavel to close, Velda’s director Luc Van Damme began preying on the financial woes of Natural Valley Farms (which had already accumulated a few million dollars in debts). He approached its managing board and proposed that Natural Valley slaughter horses for Velda NV.
The unsuspecting Canadian firm accepted the deal, not realizing that such a decision would lead to its demise—financially, environmentally and legally. After investing a significant amount of money and resources to adapt the plant to slaughter horses, Natural Valley was found to be violating the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) regulations. To comply with the rules, it would cost Natural Valley more than what Velda was paying it. Debts started to skyrocket.
According to Henry Skjerven, a director of Natural Valley, the plant was never able to afford a needed treatment system for its liquid waste, including blood and urine. The plant put the waste into a huge lagoon behind the plant until that was full, and then began dumping it into a nearby river. Video of the tanker polluting the river was put on YouTube.
Here’s how it all went down: In early 2008, several months after Natural Valley started slaughtering horses, the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition carried out an investigation, which revealed a long string of disturbing practices, heinous atrocities and law violations committed in this plant. The results of this investigation were released in a report (available here) that sparked first a news story on CBC’s The National show, titled “No Country For Horses” then an inquiry by CFIA into both the plant’s inhumane slaughtering practices and its environmental violations.
At the same time, the debt mounted to $42 million. In September of that year, the company was put into receivership by a Regina court. However, a month before that decision, Natural Valley reached a lease agreement with Luc Van Damme’s Velda, which allowed the plant to keep operating the facilities, now run by a Velda front company denominated Natural Meat Company—