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How Horse Meat Might Get Into the U.S. Food System

The hidden pipeline for America’s mystery meat may start at home.
A horse saved from the slaughterhouse.        (Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

A horse saved from the slaughterhouse. (Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

Exotic game meat is a specialty food item that’s becoming increasingly less special—currently it’s a $39 billion a year industry. This might be great news for consumers with a taste for bear, yak, lion, or beaver (you can place an online order with a quick click), but it’s not so great in terms of knowing what’s in our food.

Exotic meats shipped globally have long had a reputation for being mislabeled (in some cases, almost 70 percent of the time) and, closer to home, a recent Chapman University study found that the problem was prevalent in the United States as well. More to the point—and of possible concern to those who aren’t even in the market for exotic meat—the study found that some imported game contained traces of something that’s illegal to produce and sell commercially in the U.S.: horse meat.

Exactly how horse meat gets mixed up with other meat (processed or exotic) is hard to say. There are multiple points where supply chains might cross and most of them are obscured by the intricately global nature of the trade. But one pipeline stands out as a perfectly plausible source. Notably, it begins and ends in the U.S.

Horses shipped out of the U.S. for slaughter—there were 146,548 in 2014—are delivered to checkpoint corrals that are either privately owned or run by state departments of agriculture.

That pipeline originates with a group of brokers known as "kill buyers." Kill buyers purchase horses at auction—or from private sellers—and turn around and sell them to slaughterhouses in Mexico (and Canada). For the most part, these horses are rodeo, racing, riding, and breeding stock. But they also come from Bureau of Land Management holding facilities, where wild horses rounded up from public lands (to appease ranchers) and at public expense are held in captivity—for life.

Most recently, Tom Davis, a livestock hauler from Colorado and a neighbor of former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, purchased nearly 1,800 healthy horses from the BLM at $10 a head, signing a contract (as the BLM requires) that he would find them good homes and keep them out of the slaughterhouse. A recent investigative report, though, confirmed that Davis admitted illegally selling to a known kill buyer, Dennis Chavez of Los Lunas, New Mexico, who hauled them to Mexico, where Davis claims they were slaughtered with the BLM’s knowledge.

The entire Davis incident had a bad smell from the get-go, starting with Salazar’s threat to punch the reporter covering the disappearance of so many horses (back in 2012), and the BLM’s refusal to pursue an investigation. The smell has lingered up to Colorado authorities’ refusal to pursue prosecution of Davis or anyone else involved with the illegal sale.

Horses shipped out of the U.S. for slaughter—there were 146,548 in 2014—are delivered to checkpoint corrals that are either privately owned or run by state departments of agriculture. The Texas department of agriculture, for instance, has horse holding checkpoints in Presidio, Eagle Pass, and Morton (Chavez reportedly uses a private checkpoint in Santa Theresa, New Mexico) along the Mexico border.

There, they get unloaded, then picked up by Mexican haulers to make the trip down to slaughterhouses run mainly by European companies. Until early 2015, these operations shipped the horse meat mainly to the European Union (which has since ceased imports due to drug traceability concerns) and Asian markets.

There are two critical points to keep in mind at this point in the pipeline. The first is that the Department of Agriculture has no working drug traceability program for the kinds of narcotics that are typically administered to horses (an alarmingly high number of which are banned in food animals). This is a terrifying prospect in terms of public health, given that the most common drug that horses are given—phenylbutazone—is a known human carcinogen.

The second is that horses are not slaughtered in the U.S. The last horse slaughter facility closed here in 2007 under state laws declaring horse slaughter to be illegal. Congress has since banned the funding of inspections for horse slaughter plants in its yearly agricultural appropriations budgets, keeping new plants from opening anywhere in the U.S.

So, when horses leave the U.S. to become horse meat in Mexico they can, for all intents and purposes, sneak into the backdoor of any nation’s—and thus any company’s—food supply.

The authors of the Chapman study, which found horse meat in bison samples, entertained the likelihood “of lower-cost species being intentionally mixed in with higher-cost species for economic gain.” The scenario seems perfectly plausible. And even more so when you consider that if a company slaughters exotic game in the U.S. (say, bison) and sends horses to slaughter in Mexico, then it would make perfect economic sense to mix the meats. If that arrangement seems far-fetched, it’s not. Without naming names, such a company exists.

Adventure eaters might find it exciting to pursue exotic cuts of meat. But the quest for novelty comes with risks, ones that might leave the intrepid carnivore with more on his plate than he bargained for.


The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.