Horse meat isn’t for everybody, as Europe’s recent uproar over mislabeled burgers made clear. But those who have the taste for it tend to be true believers. One is 54-year-old Tim Sappington of Roswell, N.M., who’s owned and eaten horses his whole life. He keeps a refrigerated locker full of meat from horses he slaughters himself, dipping into it several times a week to make equine burgers and steak. “Anything we’ve ever made with meat, we’ve made with horse,” Sappington says.
Sappington is the livestock buyer for Valley Meat, a company that used to keep busy slaughtering cattle for beef. Then came the droughts. Without enough feed, New Mexico ranchers’ herds withered, and by early 2012, Valley Meat’s business had dried up. The plant decided to reconfigure its kill line for horses. It’s ready to become the U.S.’s first functioning horse slaughterhouse in more than six years—if Washington signs off on the plans. The government’s “not been doing their part,” Sappington says. (Update: As of March 21, Sappington is being investigated for animal cruelty charges in connection with a video in which he taunts animal welfare advocates while killing a horse. Activists outraged over Valley Meat’s plans to open the horse slaughterhouse circulated the video this week.)
Killing old pet horses and racehorses for meat has always been legal. In 2006, however, after years of lobbying from animal-rights activists, Congress banned the U.S. Department of Agriculture from funding federal inspections of horse slaughterhouses. All livestock sold across state lines has to be processed in a plant with a USDA inspector on site; so the halt to funding effectively shut down the country’s horse meat industry.
At the time the market was tiny. The three horse slaughterhouses operating nationwide in 2006 killed 104,899 animals, a pittance compared with the roughly 30 million beef cattle slaughtered each year. Demand from abroad is rising, though: Last year the U.S. exported 197,442 live horses to Mexico and Canada for food, more than double the number in 2007. Valley Meat wants to tap into that appetite. “We had people calling from Canada, Russia, and Belgium,” says Sappington. “I have people call every day to know if we are open.” The company was able to apply for USDA approval to operate a horse slaughterhouse because Congress quietly reversed its ban on inspections in 2011. Valley Meat says the plant could employ 100 people.
The USDA hasn’t acted on the company’s application, submitted in early 2012, or those of would-be processors in several other states. And there’s a renewed push in Congress to keep horse meat out of the U.S. diet because of concerns that drugs fed to the animals could harm humans. Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently introduced a bill to ban the killing of horses for human consumption and outlaw the shipment of horses to Canada and Mexico. “We must stop the slaughter of these beloved animals and protect the public’s health,” Landrieu said in a statement announcing the legislation. Many farm groups believe old horses would suffer more if ranchers didn’t have a way to dispose of them. “I’ve heard of horses just dropped off in the desert to starve,” says Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, who owns 40 horses.
Valley Meat is suing the USDA to make inspectors available, saying the agency must do so under a 1906 law that regulates horse slaughter. The case is pending in a federal court in Washington. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says the agency will inspect horse processing plants that meet federal standards after its inspectors complete necessary training.
There’s hope in Roswell that Valley Meat will eventually be allowed to reopen and put locals to work. “The people who are commenting on this are city people, and they don’t know any better,” says truck driver Michael Crawford. “I don’t see a problem with it,” he adds, so long as nobody’s bothered by the smell.