When the ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption was lifted in the U.S. last November, it was only a matter of time before someone applied to start the practice up again.
That person is Rick De Los Santos, a New Mexico rancher and owner of Valley Meat Co. If the USDA approves his application to have a former beef slaughterhouse inspected, it would allow the first slaughter of horses in the U.S. since 2007.
The meat would be exported to Mexico, one of many countries where eating horsemeat is nothing to flick your tail at. Horse is also eaten frequently in Europe and Asia. And the Canadian grocery chain Metro lists 22 recipes for horse meat on its website.
But Americans are historically averse to eating horses. A notable exception is the Harvard Faculty Club, which served chicken-fried horse meat until 1985. Americans have typically turned to horse consumption only in tough times. When beef rations became scarce during World War II, people turned to horse as a serviceable but inferior alternative. Republicans blamed President Truman for the shortage, labeling him "Horsemeat Harry."
Horse slaughter faces a similar stigma today, even though USDA-regulated facilities might be an improvement over conditions in some of the foreign slaughterhouses to which many American horses are sent now. Opponents say horses are intelligent, beloved companion animals and that slaughtering them for food is inhumane. Groups like PETA acknowledge the suffering of horses slaughtered abroad, but they say the answer is to stop sending horses away to be killed — not to start killing them here.
Ethical appeals are a secondary concern for meat processors like De Los Santos, who see horse slaughter as both legal and profitable. "I'm going to try to do what I need to make a living, and that's not against the law," De Los Santos told the Albuquerque Journal.
But his application already faces opposition from New Mexico's Republican governor and some Democratic officials.
Wyoming-based Unified Equine tried earlier this year to open a horse slaughterhouse near Mountain Grove, Mo., but decided to look elsewhere after running up against community opposition.
Just what does horse meat taste like, anyway? Those who've tried it say it's similar to beef — tender, but leaner and sweeter tasting. Australian blogger The Gourmet Forager attended an epicurean horse meat dinner in 2010. She described the dishes as ranging from "mild" to "gamey," but overall, "surprisingly palatable."
She also compared it to the meat of a certain iconic marsupial, which is harvested in the wild under Aussie government regulation. But so far, nobody's asked for USDA approval to slaughter kangaroo.