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They eat horses, don't they? 

Some say neigh to American horse meat bound for foreign plates

In 1986, a chestnut colt named Ferdinand overcame 17-to-1 odds and won the Kentucky Derby. Ferdinand came from Claiborne Farm, a blue-blooded home to such thoroughbreds as Seabiscuit. Claiborne's burial grounds include the remains of legendary Triple Crown Winner Secretariat, who was buried whole (traditionally only the head, heart and legs of a thoroughbred are buried). Ferdinand went on to be named Horse of the Year in 1987 in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

After earning $3.8 million, Ferdinand became a stud. Then in 1994, he was sold to a Japanese firm to father future champions there. It wasn't until his home farm wanted him back did the horse community learn Ferdinand's heartbreaking end. On Sept. 1, 2002, Ferdinand's Japanese registration was annulled, which meant he was destroyed and most likely sold as food.

Sakura is the name for raw horse meat in Japan and is served as sashimi. France, Belgium and Italy consume horse meat as well: steak tartare in Brussels, pastissada in Italy. In France, a horse meat entrée can cost $40.

Even though Americans do not consume horse meat, much of the horse meat consumed internationally is American.

Currently there are three operating horse slaughterhouses in the United States: the Beltex Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas; Dallas Crown, Inc. in Kaufman, Texas; and Cavel International, in DeKalb, Ill. All three companies are foreign-owned.

According to David Sheon, whose public relations company represents these three U.S. plants, 100,000 horses were processed in these three facilities in 2005, up from 90,000 in 2004. Thousands more American horses are shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. The United States exported 18,000 tons of horse meat, valued at $61 million in 2005.

Sheon said that commercial horse slaughterhouses have been "in operation in the United States for 100 years" and that horse meat was consumed in the States during World War II.

James Tucker, general manager of the Cavel plant, said that his plant "takes in" at least 500 head per week, or 26,000 a year. "We have buyers at auctions. There are levels at auctions -- riding horses, loose horses. We bid $300 to $500 a head."

Since people in the United States do not eat horses, it can be assumed that the horses going to slaughter are not bred to be human food.

So how do these horses get into an auction and bought by slaughterhouses? Some are pleasure horses sold off by owners who could no longer afford to care for the animals. Hardly any are old or infirmed. According to the USDA Guidelines for Handling and Transporting Equines to Slaughter, 92.3 percent of the horse population arriving for slaughter is in "good condition".

Other horses may be stolen, even though there are agents who try to check each horse's status. Some are the "premarin" foals (the young of the pregnant horses used to produce estrogen for hormone replacement therapy drugs). Some are race horses. Wild horses, too, end up at these slaughterhouses. According to the Humane Society, since the 30-year moratorium of the slaughter of wild horse and burros ended in 2004, at least 40 wild horses have been sent to these slaughterhouses.

In 1998, California banned horse slaughter for human consumption, making it illegal to export any companion animal for the purpose of having that animal killed for food.

Currently The Horse Protection Act to ban the export of horse meat for human consumption is in both the House and the Senate. HR Bill 503 passed in September 2006 (Myrick and Watt both voted in favor of the bill), but it was not voted on in the Senate and so the cycle begins again with this new Congress. The bill must pass both houses to become law.

Those opposed to the bill say slaughterhouses provide a "humane" end for unwanted livestock. But proponents cite there has been no increase in horse abuse in California since the state law was enacted. Additionally horse theft decreased by 35 percent.

Opponents say a ban on these USDA-inspected plants would put zoo food at risk. Sheon said that currently "200 zoos buy horse meat for their large animals" from these American slaughterhouses. Yet proponents argue that tax dollars should not go to USDA inspectors at plants in the first place.

Those in favor of the legislation say horses are "companion animals" -- in the same category as dogs and cats. They say that the captive bolt gun, which shoots a metal bolt between the horse's eyes into the brain, leaves room for both human and technical error and thus is inhumane. Advocates go further to say that horses are part of our national heritage: Paul Revere's ride, wagons west, and the cavalry. Then there's Mr. Ed, of course.

In light of Ferdinand's demise, thoroughbred breeders can now opt to add a "ship back" clause in the sales contract so the animal can return home at life's end and not end up on a plate.

Any horse owner can make that same commitment to his horse. The Humane Society urges horse owners to limit reproduction, adopt rescued animals, and develop a fund to pay for a future humane euthanasia by a veterinarian, if necessary. Euthanasia and disposal range from $150 to $2,000. Rendering is a different course of action. Here the animal has died and then the owner pays $150 to $300 for the horse to be picked up and taken to a rendering plant where it is cooked to destroy all bacteria, and the carcass and byproducts are used for bone meal, meat meal and gelatin.

In his testimony before the House in July 2006, N.Y. Congressman John E. Sweeney said, "If another country, France or Japan, chooses to raise horses for food, then so be it. That is their choice as a sovereign nation to do so; however, they should not serve American horses, marketed as 'eating an American champion,' as Ferdinand was."

The argument comes down to this: those wanting the slaughterhouses to continue want the economic freedom to dispense with livestock as they choose plus a concern over the welfare of unwanted horses. Those opposed to the slaughter are troubled by the double decker cattle/pig trucks used to transport horses and about the slaughtering process as well. They see horses as a symbol of America -- a majestic companion animal used primarily for recreation, pleasure, and sport, not as dollar signs or a European entrée.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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