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The Brutal and Secretive Trade of American Horses Killed For Their Meat

Few Americans are aware that our country's horses are being exported and slaughtered abroad to supply other nations' taste for a meat that's shunned at home.

Photo Credit: makieni/ Shutterstock.com


This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Herded down a concrete shute, the horses -- black and brown and grey; fat, healthy, thin, lame -- have little idea of the fate that awaits them. But one by one, the horses are separated from those behind, a metal trapdoor swinging down to confine each to a metal box. There's blood and filth on the walls and floor. Flies buzz.

A man leans over the horse -- the animal freezes at first, then jerks forward slightly, obviously terrified -- and stabs a knife forcefully into the top of the horse's head. The horse crumples to the ground and the man stabs it again. The side of the box opens, discharging the body onto a stained floor. A metal chain is hooked around a hoof, the horse swings up and onto a moving production line. Men set upon each body as they come through, slicing away skin and tissue and butchering the exposed flesh.

The footage illustrating this grisly scene in a Mexican abattoir offers a rare glimpse into a brutal and secretive trade that few Americans are aware of -- the export and slaughter of homegrown US horses to supply a meat that's shunned at home but popular with diners overseas. Each year, thousands of horses -- abandoned pets, ex-racehorses, farm animals -- are rounded up and trucked across the country south into Mexico, or north into Canada, for killing and processing and dispatching abroad, many to Europe, a major hub of horsemeat consumption.

It's a murky and often-informal business, with numerous buyers, sellers and middlemen in on the game. And it's part of a much bigger, international trade in horses and horsemeat now in the spotlight in the wake of the European horsemeat scandal. This was initially triggered by the discovery of equine meat in "beef" burgers on sale in Ireland and the UK, and has now widened to include numerous meat products.

Seizing their chance, long-time critics of the horsemeat industry have stepped up efforts to close the trade down, citing appalling horse suffering and health risks to humans through controversial drugs entering the food chain.

For welfare campaigners, the cruelty begins well before the slaughterhouse. Most horses destined for the international meat market begin their journey being trucked to auction houses across the US. From there, they are transported on to feedlots, and then exported across the border to slaughter facilities in Mexico or Canada. Activists say that horses are frequently crammed into vehicles -- many not suitable for carrying livestock -- and forced to endure lengthy journeys without adequate food, water and rest, leading to injuries and exhaustion.

Poor conditions at feedlots have also been highlighted. The pressure group Animals Angels last year investigated a major livestock auction and horse feedlot in New Mexico, and claimed to have found "multiple horses in a bad condition... emaciated, [with] untreated wounds, open cuts, lame, [with] eye injuries."

Graphic pictures show a number of other horses sprawled on the ground, apparently too sick to get up, and an aborted foal abandoned in the dust. Conditions were so bad that investigators say they pleaded with the auction authorities to euthanise a number of the horses.

Cheryl Jacobson, from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says such scenes are all too common in the US horse trade -- and blames lenient penalties for fostering a culture of poor treatment: "As at [the New Mexico auction] we've seen that if they get caught for animal welfare problems the costs incurred are still not [a deterrent], it's still worthwhile."

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