Think the Biggest Danger of Horse Meat Is Outraged Animal Lovers? Think Again.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Oct. 16 2012 11:25 AM

Trojan Horse Meat

A New York chef planned to serve raw horse meat. It would have been a disaster—but not for the reason you think.

Horses grazing.
Horse meat is, in essence, an industrial byproduct, and eating it poses a hazard to public health

Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

At Brooklyn’s Great GoogaMooga food festival last May, Hugue Dufour, the noted chef who’d co-founded the acclaimed M. Wells Diner, sold 5,000 grilled-cheese sandwiches that created quite a buzz among New York foodies. That’s because Dufour’s creation was stuffed with foie gras, pork fat, and—the rogue ingredient that titillated adventurous eaters—horse meat (mixed with pork to make bologna).

Last month, Dufour sought to capitalize on his food-festival fame by announcing that the reincarnation of his restaurant—M. Wells Dinette, now open in Queens at MoMA PS1would serve horse tartare: raw horse meat. This time the reaction wasn’t so enthusiastic. Public opposition was widespread: People flooded the restaurant with calls, bombarded Dufour with emails, and amassed an outraged scroll of signatures on a Change.org petition demanding that Dufour drop the equine delicacy. Chastened, Dufour, who ate horse meat while training to be a chef in Canada, removed the item from the menu, judiciously noting in a statement from the restaurant that “scandalizing animal lovers is not what we want to be famous for.”

There will always be a cohort of libertarian epicureans who believe that nothing—especially not animal lovers—should come between a horse and the human palate. Nonetheless, Dufour’s decision is a wise one—although probably not for the reason he or his consumers might suspect. The real threat to any retailer that serves horse meat isn’t the drumbeat of opposition that will inevitably resound from horse lovers. It’s the hazard that horse meat poses to public health. Horse meat is, in essence, an industrial byproduct. For that reason alone, Dufour had no business tempting patrons with the exotic, extralegal treat—no matter how great it supposedly tastes. (Dufour didn’t respond to my requests for comment for this article.)

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Consider the supply chain. In 2011, almost 140,000 horses from the United States were sent to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. (The last American horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007.) Many of the horses that landed in these across-the-border abattoirs were thoroughbreds from the U.S. horse racing industry. Others came from prolific quarter horse breeders, who send horses into racing, ranching, and rodeos. Racing in particular is a controversial business marked by overbreeding, early racehorse retirement, and extensive drug use. (The New York Times has laid bare the harrowing evidence this year in an excellent series called “Breakdown: Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks.”) Indeed, many racehorses essentially become pharmaceutical dumping grounds throughout their artificially stimulated, sedated, and numbed lives. The chemicals that course through the blood and lodge in the flesh of many thoroughbreds and quarter horses might ease their pain and treat their diseases, but they also make these animals distinctly unfit for a GoogaMooga sandwich.

The irony here is instructive. American consumers—especially the kind that attend food festivals that serve horse sandwiches—are, as a rule, deeply opposed to the way factory farms saturate confined animals with growth hormones, vaccines, and antibiotics. But the medications turning them off conventionally produced meat are at least regulated—unlike the toxicological residue in horse flesh. Until horses are specifically raised for their meat, and effectively regulated by the USDA as a discrete food product (both of which I hope never happen), this situation is unlikely to change.

As matters now stand, the horse-racing industry, which is notorious for its reliance on overmedication, is a driving force behind the production and oversight of horse meat. Few aspects of the global food system are more absurd—the horse industry, after all, has about as much interest in safe food as the coal industry. To wit: A single racehorse’s personal history of drug use almost certainly includes Banamine (an anti-inflammatory), Clenbuterol (a steroid), Ivermectin (dewormer), and Lasix (an anti-bleeding drug), and might also include snake venom (which deadens nerves in horses’ joints) and other steroids (which are banned but still sometimes used by unscrupulous vets). Trainers and veterinarians, needless to say, aren’t thinking about human health when they administer these medications before the bets are placed and the gates are opened.

The most common pharmacological concern when it comes to horse meat is an anti-inflammatory drug called phenylbutazone, or “bute.” Whatever the exact lineup of drugs administered, many racehorses receive a steady dosage of bute. For all its effectiveness in treating horse pain, however, bute, a carcinogen, is strongly linked with bone marrow and liver problems in humans. In fact, the danger it poses is so acute that the FDA has banned its use in animals intended for human consumption because, according to one peer-reviewed study in Food and Chemical Toxicology, “it causes serious and lethal idiosyncratic adverse effects in humans.”

As the furor over Dufour’s proposed menu item began to die down early this month, Eater New York declared: “The M. Wells Horse Tartare Scandal Is Officially Over.” And recent (unconfirmed) reports that Canada may be halting import of American horses for slaughter seems like more good news for those concerned about horse meat safety. But if you’re breathing a sigh of relief, hold your horses. Last June, a Wyoming-based company called Unified Equine announced that it would be opening a horse-meat processing plant in Missouri with plans to distribute the meat globally and domestically. “USDA,” the company told a local news station, “will oversee and verify the food safety of all products.” Noting that “the United States has the safest food supply in the world,” Unified Equine CEO Sue Wallis further explained to me in an email that the USDA has “been thoroughly reviewing their equine inspection protocols” and that “they are close to being done with this process.”

Let’s hope the USDA gets a rigorous inspection system in place. But critics of equine slaughter still have their concerns. According to John Holland, who co-founded the anti-horse-slaughter nonprofit Equine Welfare Alliance, “American horses receive over 100 medications that are not permitted in food animals.” Dr. Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, told me that safe horse meat was unlikely because “chances of there being bute in the horses are very high and bute is not approved for human consumption by the FDA.” Vickery Eckhoff, a reporter for Forbes who has extensively covered the issue of horse slaughter (and who probably knows more about it than any other working journalist), recently called the USDA to ask how they might deal with phenylbutazone. The representative with whom she spoke had never heard of the drug, and even had to ask how it was spelled.

It’s tempting to suggest: i-m-p-e-n-d-i-n-g d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.

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