World’s appetite for horse meat may create jobs in American heartland

With a ban on slaughtering lifted, could the U.S. export horse meat again? It's looking unlikely although one town in Missouri would welcome the change

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Rockville, Missouri Mayor David Moore on his tractor. (Anna Boiko-Weyrauch)

FROM THE EDITORS 8/26:

We commissioned this story because we wanted to find out how the world’s appetite for horse meat might change the lives of people in the small Missouri town of Rockville. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch spent a day in Rockville, hearing from a wide variety of townspeople – all of whom supported the opening of a horse meat slaughterhouse. The question of whether the slaughterhouse would actually be opened, however, remained speculative – dependent on negotiations between the owners of the plant and prospective buyers – a fact that Anna made clear in her piece below.  

However, since Anna reported from Rockville, the owner of the slaughterhouse has been sued for violating state law. This is an essential part of the story – it is now unlikely that the plant will open in Rockville any time soon. We apologize for the omission.  

We have tried to get a reaction to this development from Wyoming Representative Sue Wallis, the prospective buyer of the plant. She has not returned phone calls or email.  

It has also been brought to our attention since publication of our original piece that this summer Representative Jim Moran’s (D-VA) amendment to the 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill “to prohibit funding for any horse inspection activity necessary to transport and slaughter horses in the U.S.” was approved in Committee. If passed it will mean horse meat slaughterhouses cannot open in the U.S.

It is also the case, as a number of people have commented in response to Anna’s original piece, that not all Europeans are enthusiastic about American horse meat because of the drugs used to treat horses in the U.S., a story that we have previously reported at Latitude News

Back in Rockville, Mayor David Moore told us this week that he hasn’t heard from Sue Wallis or her company since May, and only heard about the legal challenges through word of mouth. “The last thing I heard was no one knew who owned the place,” he said. “The town is still in favor, and people who submitted job applications are still waiting to hear back.”     

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One paved road runs through rural Rockville in western Missouri. The mayor mows the town’s grass with a red tractor on his day off.  The bank is open three hours a day.

Yet soon Rockville — population 166 — might be supplying diners in China, France, Russia and elsewhere with an internationally-renowned delicacy: horse meat.

The Wyoming-based company, Unified Equine, hopes to convert a shuttered beef processing plant on the northern outskirts of Rockville to a horse slaughterhouse in the fall. This move might well revive the local economy, which collapsed when the beef plant closed its doors more than a year ago: it’s expected to generate 50 new jobs.

“I started talking to everybody and there wasn’t one of them that was against it,” said Mayor David Moore. “Everybody around here wanted their jobs back.”

Unified Equine is in talks to purchase the former beef processing plant, owned by West Missouri Beef, and remodel it to process horses. The initiative has been made possible by a recent change in federal regulations.

Last year, Congress reversed a ban on horse slaughterhouses. As the first facility to open since the restrictions were lifted, Unified Equine’s plant is expected to be on the vanguard of an industry flooded with unwanted horses that are often worthless. Once slaughterhouses buy these horses, the processed meat will be shipped to countries like France, Russia and China, for international consumers to grill, stew and roast.

American quarter horses “lean and tender”

The United States was until recently a major supplier of horse meat to Asia and Europe. Grazed in spacious prairies, American quarter horses produce “lean and tender” meat, said Olivier Kemseke, chief executive of Chevideco, an international horsemeat broker based in Rekkem, Belgium. “It’s the very best,” he said.

The meat is highly regarded around the world, Kemseke said. In 2006, the U.S. provided 39 percent of horse meat to France, according to the French Interbev, which stands for the National Interprofessional Association of Livestock and Meat. In 2006, nearly 105,000 horses were slaughtered under the auspices of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at three facilities, and the US exported $65 million dollars of horsemeat, according to the USDA.

But, in that same year, Congress effectively closed the industry by banning the USDA from using federal funds to inspect slaughtered horses destined for human palates. The move was tacked onto the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations bill by then-Representative John Sweeney, a New York Republican, as part of a larger effort spearheaded by Sweeney and animal-rights groups to pass legislation banning horse slaughter in the U.S. outright.

“The facts stand in our favor: horse slaughter is cruel, it is unnecessary and the majority of Americans want it to end,” Sweeney wrote in Animal Guardian magazine in Spring 2006.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Kemseke was shocked: How could the US, “the country of entrepreneurship par excellence” shut down an entire industry?

As a result, Chevideco had to close a profitable slaughterhouse in Texas. “It cost me millions of dollars,” Kemseke said.

Rural America was hit hard.

The bottom of the market

As long as slaughterhouses were in business, horse owners knew they could always find a minimum price for their unwanted stock. If a horse was old, or injured so that it couldn’t be put to work or shown, the owner could earn at least a few hundred dollars by selling it to a slaughterhouse. The price for the lowest quality horses dropped an average of 20 percent with the ban, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Some owners reported earning just a few dollars.

Moving up the market, the value of higher quality horses also depended on that assured “last resort” price. Without slaughterhouses, the floor for horse prices dropped, dragging the value of other horses with it. The recession was another blow to the market, causing the highest tier horses to depreciate an average of five percent in value, according to the GAO.

Bonnie Riley and her horses. (Anna Boiko-Weyrauch)

In Booneville, Missouri, Bonnie Riley used to breed paint horses for competitions. A kind of quarter horse, paints are named after the colors of their coats, which are often covered in patches of brown and white, or speckles of grey.

“I used to sell babies for $6,500 to $7,500, right off their mamas. Two years ago, I was lucky to get $2,500,” she said. “Last year I saw the writing on the wall and didn’t breed anything.”

Riley said she would never sell one of her horses to a slaughterhouse, or “the killers,” as she described them. But her business relied on the killers because they provided a market for worthless horses and helped ensure her animals’ high value.

After the ban was instituted, some condemned horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico at much greater distances and cost than before. Other unwanted horses have been abandoned all over the country.

The GAO’s report in June 2011 on the effect of the ban on horse welfare and economics had a clear message for the politicians:

“GAO suggests that Congress may wish to reconsider restrictions on the use of federal funds to inspect horses for slaughter or, instead, consider a permanent ban on horse slaughter.”

Five months later, in November, Congress reversed course. Language banning horse slaughterhouse inspections was removed from a spending bill signed by President Barack Obama.

The path was opened for horse slaughterhouses to resume.

Animal rights activists have criticized Congress’ move. ”Horses are not raised for human consumption,” says Valerie Pringle, the Humane Society of the United States’ equine protection specialist.

Pringle adds that Agriculture Department officials have yet to issue a license to any slaughterhouses to begin work. The Humane Society is now monitoring how the department will regulate the treatment of horses, especially how they’re given drugs before slaughter, she says.

Restoring the industry

Wyoming State Representative Sue Wallis, a Republican elected after the ban took effect, got involved in the slaughterhouse industry after she saw how the value of one of her family’s mares plummeted.

She founded Unified Equine, she says, to restore the domestic horse industry and humanely dispose of unwanted animals. This way, she says, the animals will be well taken care of and not thrown away while there is demand for their meat.

Unified Equine is also looking to open facilities in Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming. The company has a partnership with Chevideco to market horse meat all over the world.

Wallis said her enterprise is nothing new. “The livestock business writ large — cattle, hogs, chickens, horses — has been an international enterprise for many, many, many years,” she said.

The town of Rockville concurs. They bristle at comments from animal rights groups and others protesting the new slaughterhouse.  “We just try and mind our own business and want other people to do the same,” said the owner of Granny’s Restaurant, Lois Schenker.

Schenker started the restaurant after her horse auction business flopped following the 2006 horse slaughterhouse restrictions. In fact, Schenker said everyone in this rural town was personally affected by the recent fluctuation in the horse market. Rockville residents keep horses as pets or breed them to sell, and all seem to have a story about horses whose market price dropped seemingly overnight.

Rockville residents aren’t weirded out by people who eat horses, either. In fact, many have even tried it themselves.

Mayor Moore tried some in a stir-fry when he was stationed in the military in Okinawa, Japan. “Real sweet,” he said to describe the taste. “About like putting a tablespoon of sugar on your steak.”

One potential customer for sweet American horse meat is Guillaume Hervoix, a forklift operator in central France who is part of a Facebook group for “horse meat eaters.”

In a Facebook message, Hervoix wrote that he would gladly tuck into a cut from U.S. horses:  “If the animals were raised and slaughtered in good conditions, why not?”