Wild Horses, We'll Eat Them Someday

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
Read More.
a | A

You survived the Sharknado, but are you ready for what Ezra Klein is calling the Equine Apocalypse?

The Washington Post's Brad Plumer reports that the Western U.S. is on the verge of a "serious horse crisis." The population of the wild animals on public lands has soared to 33,000 -- 10,000 above the federally mandated level -- and costs the Bureau of Land Management $75 million each year.

Now a paper in the journal Science predicts that the BLM will have to spend $1.1 billion over the next 17 years just to keep shipping excess horses to private ranches. One author, Robert A. Garrott of the University of Montana, warns that, "We'll end up like Australia," which has 400,000 horses running wild and is weighing a large-scale culling operation, something currently banned here.

The paper argues for some sensible measures such as stepping up contraception efforts, but even if combined with increased adoptions, this wouldn't fix the problem. What we really need is to call in the foodies.

When traces of horse meat were found in supermarket products in the U.K. in January, many consumers were appalled, but nobody got sick. And, let's face it, given the "pink slime" that's passed off as hamburger these days, shouldn't we be looking for low-fat, sourceable, low-cost protein anywhere that we can find it? As I've explained before, while horse is primarily eaten in Asia today, it has a long culinary history in the West, from sauerbraten to pastissada de caval. And while it remains on menus in Europe, at least as a specialty item, Americans are reflexively opposed to the whole idea, primarily on how-dare-you-eat-something-with-a-name grounds. (Sometimes violently opposed -- a Philadelphia restaurant that announced in February it was planning to serve a Sicilian horse dish claims it received a series of bomb threats.)

Large-scale butchering of U.S. horses, for export or for animal food at circuses and zoos, ended a half-dozen years ago after Congress de-funded slaughterhouse inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly 100,000 horses were killed in 2005 -- mostly aged companion and farm animals whose working days were behind them. Since then, horses destined for processing have endured lengthy train trips to abattoirs in Mexico and Canada where, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply."

Congress ended the ban on inspection financing in 2011, but the Department of Agriculture has dragged its feet, and suits and countersuits from slaughterhouse owners and animal-rights groups have left the whole issue in a legal morass. On Aug. 2, a federal judge in New Mexico granted the Humane Society a restraining order against renewed inspections that would have started this month.

Opponents say that butchering horses is worse for the environment than killing cows, with more offal and blood runoff. That may be true, but it seems manageable through engineering. Another common argument against human consumption is that companion and farm horses can be as doped up as Major League outfielders: "There are few regulations on the drugs given to horses," says Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, "and we cannot risk introducing dangerously toxic meat into our food supply."

That would seem the perfect argument for shifting the industry toward the wild horse population, which isn't likely getting juiced up while foraging on public lands. Lifting the bans on slaughtering wild mustangs and introducing them into a well-supervised and humane slaughter program seems the logical way to stop the population explosion and ease the BLM's cash crunch. Would you rather have these creatures overwhelming their ecosystem and dying of starvation, or served as tartare with a quail egg at your corner brasserie?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net