The Troubled History of Horse Meat in America

The White House wants to reinstate the sale of horses for slaughter, but eating horse meat has always been politically treacherous. An Object Lesson.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

President Donald Trump wants to cut a budget the Bureau of Land Management uses to care for wild horses. Instead of paying to feed them, he has proposed lifting restrictions preventing the sale of American mustangs to horse meat dealers who supply Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses.

Horse meat, or chevaline, as its supporters have rebranded it, looks like beef, but darker, with coarser grain and yellow fat. It seems healthy enough, boasting almost as much omega-3 fatty acids as farmed salmon and twice as much iron as steak. But horse meat has always lurked in the shadow of beef in the United States. Its supply and demand are irregular, and its regulation is minimal. Horse meat’s cheapness and resemblance to beef make it easy to sneak into sausages and ground meat. Horse lovers are committed and formidable opponents of the industry, too.

The management of wild horse herds is a complex issue, which might create difficulty for Trump. Horse meat has a long history of causing problems for American politicians.

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Horses originated in North America. They departed for Eurasia when the climate cooled in the Pleistocene, only to return thousands of years later with the conquistadors. Horses became a taboo meat in the ancient Middle East, possibly because they were associated with companionship, royalty, and war. The Book of Leviticus rules out eating horse, and in 732 Pope Gregory III instructed his subjects to stop eating horse because it was an “impure and detestable” pagan meat. As butchers formed guilds, they too strengthened the distinction between their work and that of the knacker, who broke down old horses into unclean meat and parts. By the 16th century, hippophagy—the practice of eating horse meat—had become a capital offense in France.

However, a combination of Enlightenment rationalism, the Napoleonic Wars, and a rising population of urban working horses led European nations to experiment with horse meat in the 19th century. Gradually, the taboo fell. Horses were killed in specialist abattoirs, and their meat was sold in separate butcher shops, where it remained marginalized. Britain alone rejected hippophagy, perhaps because it could source adequate red meat from its empire.

America also needed no horse meat. For one part, the Pilgrims had brought the European prohibition on eating horse flesh, inherited from the pre-Christian tradition. But for another, by the 1700s the New World was a place of carnivorous abundance. Even the Civil War caused beef prices to fall, thanks to a wartime surplus and new access to Western cattle ranges. Innovations in meat production, from transport by rail to packing plants and refrigeration, further increased the sense of plenty. Periodic rises in the price of beef were never enough to put horse on the American plate.

Besides, horse meat was considered un-American. Nineteenth-century newspapers abound with ghoulish accounts of the rise of hippophagy in the Old World. In these narratives, horse meat is the food of poverty, war, social breakdown, and revolution—everything new migrants had left behind. Nihilists share horse carcasses in Russia; wretched Frenchmen gnaw on cab horses in besieged Paris; poor Berliners slurp on horse soup.

But in the 1890s, a new American horse meat industry arose, if awkwardly. With the appearance of the electric street car and the battery-powered automobile, the era of the horse as a transportation technology was ending. American entrepreneurs proposed canning unwanted horses for sale in the Old World, paying hefty bonds to guarantee they wouldn’t sell their goods at home. But Europe had higher standards and didn’t like the intrusion of American meat onto its home market. U.S. aversion to regulation had led to food scares and poisonings. When French and German consuls visited a Chicago abattoir suspected of selling diseased horse to Europe, opponents tried to smear the U.S. Agriculture secretary, who had previously intervened. By 1896, the fledgling industry was faltering: Belgium barred U.S. horse meat, Chicagoans were rumored to be eating chevaline unwittingly, and the price of horses had fallen so drastically that their flesh was being fed to chickens because it was cheaper than corn.

In 1899, horse meat was dragged into one of the highest-profile food scandals of the century: the notorious Beef Court investigating how American soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War ended up poisoned by their own corned meat. Many speculated wrongly that the contaminated beef was in fact horse meat. The first decade of America’s horse meat industry had been an unprofitable, ill-regulated disaster for the country’s reputation. The new regulations put in place in the 1906 Pure Food Act could not reverse this overnight.

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When beef prices rose as canners shipped it abroad during World War I, Americans finally discovered horse steak. By 1919, Congress was persuaded to authorize the Department of Agriculture to provide official inspections and stamps for American horse meat, although as soon as beef returned after the war, most citizens abandoned chevaline.

The end of the war meant another drop in demand for range-bred horses no longer needed on the Western Front. A dealer, Philip Chappel, found a new use for them: Ken-L-Ration, the first commercial canned dog food. His success attracted perhaps the first direct action in the name of animal liberation: A miner named Frank Litts twice attempted to dynamite his Rockford, Illinois packing plant.

During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.

Although work horses vanished by the 1970s and mustangs were finally under federal protection, the growing number of leisure horses led to another surge in horse slaughter. The 1973 oil crisis pushed up the price of beef and, inevitably, domestic horse meat sales rose. Protestors picketed stores on horseback, and Pennsylvania Senator Paul S. Schweiker floated a bill banning the sale of horse meat for human consumption.

But once again the bubble burst. Competition sent beef prices into freefall. Even poor Americans didn’t need to buy the “poor man’s beef,” so U.S. manufacturers continued to export horse meat to Europe and Asia. Politicians began to apply pressure. In the early 1980s, Montana and Texas senators shamed the Navy into removing horse meat from commissary stores. The few remaining horse-packing plants dwindled during a market squeeze that also drove down welfare standards. Sick, injured, or distressed horses were driven long distances to slaughter under poor conditions.

In 1997, the Los Angeles Times broke the news that 90 percent of the mustangs removed from the range by the Bureau of Land Management had been sold on for meat by their supposed adopters. An Oregon horse abattoir called Cavel West was named in the report. It burned down that July, in an attack claimed by the Animal Liberation Front on behalf of the mustangs. The members of the ALF cell responsible were tried for terrorism, but Cavel West was never rebuilt. Nonviolent activists also applied pressure to the horse meat business, with California banning the transport and sale of horses for meat.

Activists and politicians worked to shut down the remaining abattoirs in the years that followed. In early September 2006, the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act passed the U.S. House, with Republican John Sweeney calling the horse meat business “one of the most inhumane, brutal and shady practices going on in the United States today.” Horse slaughter was not outlawed, but both federal and commercial funding for inspections was canceled, effectively shutting down the business.

Meanwhile, the town of Kaufman, Texas, mobilized against the Belgian-owned abattoir on their outskirts that paid little tax but spilled blood into the sewage system. The plant, along with another in Fort Worth, were closed. In DeKalb, Illinois, the only remaining American horse meat plant burned down in unexplained circumstances. The owners were prevented from rebuilding, as Illinois once more passed a law to stop the horse meat business. Horse slaughter ceased on U.S. soil, at least for domestic use as food. Even so, American horses were still being transported long distance to Mexican and Canadian abattoirs.

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The 2009 financial crisis dealt the equestrian industry a heavy blow. The pro-slaughter lobby, backed by a 2011 GAO study, suggested that American horses had suffered, as owners no longer receiving meat money would not pay to dispose of them. Groups like United Horsemen coopted Tea Party rhetoric to compare animal-welfare campaigners to the Nazis. Opponents pointed out that poor paperwork meant many slaughter-bound horses had been treated by drugs that should have ruled them out of the food chain. Across America, both sides clashed when Obama signed a new law lifting the ban on funding for inspections. New abattoirs were proposed, but town after town blocked the measures. The 2014 Obama budget once more ruled out a revival. Meanwhile, the horses continued to be shipped to Mexico and Canada.

Today, all the familiar contradictions of the American horse meat business are playing out again, as Trump looks toward horse meat as a cost-cutting measure. Ranges are overflowing with mustangs. Animal-welfare information has disappeared from government websites, and the administration is rumored to have called on the GAO to launch another study into the benefits of building domestic abattoirs.

And yet, without adequate funding for proper inspections in a reborn U.S. horse meat industry, the market might languish. Europe is already skeptical of Mexican and Canadian exports sourced from the United States, making horse meat less profitable anyway.

Forever marginal, always unsteady, the business of packing and selling the poor man’s beef could boom and crash again in America. If it does, Trump might find himself sporting a new political epithet: Horse-Meat Donny.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.