Inside the Abattoir

by James McGirk


Chevideco, the Belgian horse meat conglomerate, touts a single story in its press section: a taste test held at a west London home was arranged by Sir Peter Bazalgette, who writes a column for the Financial Times and chairs Britain’s Arts Council. Sir Peter blindfolded his guests and grilled ten frozen burger patties. He fed them meat “on its own with no buns, salad or relish.” The horse was a hit, deemed, “substantial with an authentic whiff of offal,” and “with the mild, gratifying flavour of liver,” placing second overall in the patty rankings. Sir Peter’s guests were informed in advance that one of the patties would be made of horse meat, yet it is hard to imagine the scene without gothic accoutrements: the blindfolded diners sitting at a long table in a gloomy mansion, the host at the head of the table holding a sizzling pan, a clap of thunder, leering portraits, a sliver of mysterious meat raised on the tines of a fork. Chevideco unwittingly ups the menace by emphasizing the last line of the article, which reads: “[the exotic meat company that provided the horse meat] promises none of its horse burgers has been contaminated with beef.”

The beef burger has a sinister history in the United Kingdom. Not so long ago, in the 1990s, Britons worried their entire beef-eating population might succumb to an incurable degenerative brain disorder known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which had been introduced by feeding beef cattle a protein-rich slurry that included infected bovine spinal tissue (in cattle this condition is known as mad cow disease). The disaster never came to pass. Only 175 human cases were confirmed in the United Kingdom and another 49 abroad between 1986 and 2011, but millions of cattle had to be destroyed. Realizing in January 2013 that much of its supply was laced with horse meat reawakened old anxieties for beef-eating Englishmen.

The English, like us Americans, have a long tradition of separating animals into edible, wild, and companion categories. To an average Englishman, the horse is a gentle, friendly, magnificent creature—about as far from a burger as you could possibly get. You can even make the case that the English are more attached to animals than we are. They regularly descend en masse on small Spanish villages to protest cruel customs— most famously in 1986 when, riled up by Rupert Murdoch’s notorious tabloid The Star (then calling itself the “kindest newspaper to animals”), a group of Britons saved “Blackie” the burro from being crushed by the town drunk in a symbolic re-enactment of a rapist’s execution in Villanueva de la Vera’s annual village festival. Elsewhere in Europe and Asia, however, a history rich in famine has forced more adventurous cuisine. Outside of the Anglo-American sphere, horse is actually considered a clean meat, a substitute for beef free from bovine growth hormone and menaces like the brain-melting prions responsible for vCJD.

American horse meat actually commands a premium in Europe, where cowboys-and-Indians comics are sold at newsstands, and the Wild West carries romantic connotations. Prime cuts of horse in Paris, according to the ASPCA, can reach prices up to to $20 a pound (a pound of ground beef goes for about $11.20). Google the Belgian comic “Lucky Luke,” for a glimpse of it.

The supply of American horse meat has dwindled since the last three American plants were closed down in 2007. Peak output hit 350,000 horses a year in 1990. Last year between 130,000 and 160,000 horses were shipped out of the United States to plants in Canada or Mexico. Canadian plants led horses down a track, held them in a head harness, a shot them with a bolt gun, which uses a blank round to force a wide metal rod through a horse’s skull, destroying its brain. Occasionally they’ll use a rifle. Mexican slaughterhouses range from ones built to European standards to smaller, completely unregulated municipal slaughterhouses. There, horses are hoisted in the air and their throats repeatedly jabbed with a puntilla knife, a cruel double-sided dagger.

* * *

Horses are sensitive creatures. Families of them gallop together in the wild, roaming hundreds of miles to forage for food and water. To keep one stabled is extremely expensive. To buy one at auction, assuming you aren’t buying a descendant of Secretariat, might cost anywhere from a hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the horse’s age, condition, and training. Then you have to feed it. A horse can easily weigh over a 1,000 lbs and requires about 1.5 percent of its bodyweight in hay per day. Then you have to shelter it—that’s another couple of hundred dollars a month—buy riding equipment, pay for transportation, training, vet care, shoes from a farrier… and so on. Usually, horse ownership costs range from $2,000-$5,000 a year, about the same as a nice car. Horses are a luxury item, a status symbol people strive for, and often overextend themselves trying to afford—particularly when feed prices climb and the economy dips. Sometimes an owner is forced to sacrifice a horse to keep a herd. Euthanasia is expensive. Even doing it yourself with a shotgun slug can mean expensive disposal fees. Desperate owners abandon horses, dooming them to death by starvation. Slaughter could help an owner make a little money, though a thriving market for horseflesh (currently hovering around 35 cents a pound wholesale) would encourage thieves.

Even if you don’t own a horse, in a sense, you do. The Bureau of Land Management cares for tens of thousands of burros and wild mustangs (the feral descendants of escaped horses) on your behalf. Great herds of them thunder through federal lands in Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Nevada. But they compete with cattle ranchers for food, nibbling grasses down to bare earth, and since they have few natural enemies, are considered a nuisance. The BLM trims their numbers every year, herding them by helicopter and carting them off to short-term holding pens in places like Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, where they’re trained and sold for $125 a head. “Kill buying” wild horses is officially prohibited but hard to police. There are “whispers” that BLM-branded horses are often spotted in trailers, crossing the border into Mexico. Madeleine Pickens (former wife of Oklahoma-born billionaire T. Boone Pickens and owner of the Del Mar Country Club) has purchased 900 square miles of ranch-land in Elko, Nevada, to create what she hopes will become Mustang Monument: a private foundation that would adopt and maintain wild mustangs from the BLM and allow Americans to reclaim their Western heritage in a luxurious setting. She’s fought passionately for horses’ rights and says allowing slaughter “would be a black mark” on Oklahoma’s already soiled reputation for animal rights. Few Oklahomans want horse slaughter, she says; the movement for it is the result of lobbying by the powerful “Ag industry,” including the Belgian conglomerates.

* * *

Temple Grandin, the autistic social scientist made famous by Oliver Sacks’ Anthropologist from Mars, (currently employed as an animal science professor at Colorado State University) claims her inability to think in a symbolic language gives her special insight into a herd animal’s consciousness. “My memories and the horses’ memories are like photos stored in a computer. Or audio clips,” she writes. Her simple recommendations given from an animal’s point of view (such as using non-slip surfaces for animals to walk on, minimizing frightening sights and sounds and gently curving walkways) have helped slaughterhouses develop humane killing methods and process their livestock more efficiently.

According to Grandin, a horse and cow experience stress in a similar way. (If anything, horses are more spirited than cows, since they aren’t bred to be docile.) Both are animals of flight, herd animals ready to bolt the moment they see a predator, and are afraid of sudden sounds and unfamiliar sights. Restraint and isolation are particularly terrifying. She points to blood cortisol levels taken from tissue after slaughter as an index of stress that a cow experiences during different kill methods [1]. These range from 15 ng/mL for a cow killed by a captive bolt system in a quiet research facility (about the level of stress a young cow experiences during normal handling) to 93 ng/mL, extreme stress, for an animal who was inverted on its back for 103 seconds before being killed. The latter is about the comfort-level of a horse hoisted and gutted in an unregulated Mexican plant. A noisy, slippery commercial plant boosted animals’ average cortisol count to 63 ng/mL, slightly below what was measured in sheep—another herd animal—after shearing and “other farm procedures” such as castration and branding. Quieter plants with better floors resulted in cortisol levels between 24-51 ng/mL—the latter number for a plant with a “poorly designed head restraint” that only 14 percent of animals would have entered willingly. In 1998 on behalf of the USDA/APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) Temple Grandin surveyed two American horse slaughter plants in Texas. She watched 1,008 horses arrive at the plant, seventy-eight of which arrived with “severe welfare problems.” These included a bucking bronco with a broken leg, horses wounded from fighting during transit, plus severely malnourished and foundered horses, which refers to a degenerative condition affecting a horse’s hooves. Sixty out of the seventy-eight were neglected by their owners and the other eighteen were afflicted during transport, such as one horse who leapt from a double trailer and fell on the ramp below. In other words, these weren’t all nags. Another survey of hers, this time of a horse auction in Pennsylvania, revealed a further 12.5 percent of horses exhibited bad behaviors—like extreme fear, aggression, bucking, and rearing—that made them undesirable as riding or draft horses. Grandin recommended then and continues to recommend that American horse slaughterhouses be kept open and strictly regulated by the USDA to prevent animals from going to unregulated Mexican municipal slaughterhouses. Of course, all commercial slaughter is an ugly business up close. But the reason why the Texan plants were eventually shut down wasn’t so much their treatment of horses as their treatment of human beings.

Most manufacturing boosts employment and dampens the crime rate, but not the processing of meat. Horse slaughter is particularly hard on a community: the animals have a chilling human-like scream and without the levels of government scrutiny a cattle-killing facility would have, corners are cut and costly environmental regulations flouted. Communities pay dearly for slaughterhouses, from environmental damage to sagging property values; but most horrid of all, slaughtering animals deadens a community. A strange corporeal apathy sweeps an afflicted area. Domestic violence spikes. At least one study found a direct correlation between arrests for rape and the presence of a slaughterhouse. In Kaufman, Texas—one of the last three plants in the United States before it was shut down in 2007—crime rates streaked upwards and kept going up until Harvard-educated local Paula Bacon became mayor and finally chased Chevideco’s satellite company Dallas Crown out of town. When they left murder and rape dropped back to zero and robbery went down 65 percent.

It took decades of litigation and help from powerful outsiders to uproot Dallas Crown; a feat that would be difficult to replicate were the industry to re-emerge in Oklahoma. Perhaps, most insulting of all, was that Kaufman received so little in return for hosting the plant. A peek at its finances revealed that Dallas Crown paid a mere $5 in federal taxes in 2004 from selling $12 million worth of meat (10 percent earmarked for zoo animals, 90 percent flown to Europe, presumably for blindfolded burger tastings).

* * *

There were worries that America would be flooded with abandoned horses when the last three plants were shut down. Numbers have crept up. The droughts of the past few years have quintupled the price of hay, putting the squeeze on owners. The New York Times cites the Unwanted Horse Coalition, which estimated that between 170,000 and 180,000 horses were “given up on by their owners” last year. Yet unwanted animals can be humanely disposed of without cutting them into steaks. (Subsidized euthanasia, for example.) Besides, if there are still people trying to swindle wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management during this historic glut of horseflesh, there has to be more of a demand for horses than there is a supply, which means horses will be raised for slaughter. And, with all due respect to our blindfolded friends across the Atlantic, there is something creepy about raising an animal for slaughter that we won’t eat ourselves. Chevideco and its ilk are after our horses. The thought of it ought to churn your stomach.


1. Tume and Shaw, 1992

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 8. April 15, 2013.