Friday, March 22, 2013

The Horsemeat Saga

Sappington shoots a horse for show
 (I would rather not link to this or any other video of horse-slaughter)

Living in rural New Mexico, one is around livestock -- including horses -- all the time. We don't have a ranch, but there are good-sized ranches all around here, some of them running cattle, others fallow because of the drought. Lots of people have horses, whether they are ranching or not.

Given the drought and the cost of feed, it's getting tougher to hold on to any livestock these days, though some ranchers are managing. They say that this is the worst drought since the 1950's, and that was the worst since the Dustbowl in the '30's; it could get a good deal worse before it gets better. Climate change and all.

Meanwhile, outside of Roswell, a fellow named Rick de los Santos has been trying to get USDA approval to re-open his shuttered (cattle) slaughterhouse as a horsemeat slaughterhouse, and it's been just one thing after another for him. Trouble. Compounded recently by the now-viral video of his one employee shooting a horse -- just because he can -- and saying "Fuck you, animal activists!" as he does so.

Slaughtering horses for human consumption was banned in the US in 2007; the EU has banned the importation of US slaughtered horsemeat in any case. Supposedly, de los Santos intends to sell his horsemeat to Mexico, but there is little likelihood of it happening, given the fact that the meat of horses slaughtered in Mexico is sold to the EU. There is no foreign or domestic market for US slaughtered horsemeat, and yet for some time there has been a strenuous push to revive US slaughtering of horses for meat, and the saga of Valley Meats out of Roswell has become the showpiece of the story. (The ban was lifted by President Obama in 2011.)

Valley Meats used to slaughter cattle but apparently got into some difficulty when the USDA inspector became aware of cruelties to livestock and unsanitary conditions and suspended inspections, thus shutting down the plant in February of last year. Supposedly, there was a plan to correct the problems, but it was never put into effect, and the plant stayed closed. So far as I've been able to find out, de los Santos decided to switch to horse-slaughter instead of cattle and has been trying to get inspections and a permit to operate since last April. The permitting and inspection process has been delayed time and again.

There has been plenty of political pressure to deny any permits for horse slaughterhouses in New Mexico, and there is surprising unanimity by state officials against opening the Valley Meats plant outside of Roswell for horse-slaughter. Of course, as always, the counter-argument is that those against horse-slaughtering for human consumption are "just being emotional," and shouldn't be listened to.

After all, "emotions" mean nothing...

What will happen ultimately is anybody's guess, but at the moment, both the Sappington video and the many death threats against him and de los Santos are being investigated by the FBI.

It's out of control.

And of course this situation provides plenty of grist for the civil libertarian and propertarian mills, as Sappington's statement ("Fuck you, animal activists!") as he shoots the horse is both condemned and defended, while his right to shoot the horse -- and say anything he wants to -- is highlighted and declared quintessentially "American". De Los Santos's right to slaughter horses or cattle or any other livestock he wants to without interference from the Nanny State will be debated ad nauseum, while safety and legal issues will be nit-picked to death (so to speak) ad infinitum. This is the way these things tend to go. Even in New Mexico.

But there's another layer to all of this. Sappington seems to have some real power issues which he gives vent to by killing a horse on camera and posting the video on his Facebook page, while cursing and denouncing "animal activists" -- who have done what to him, exactly?  They've interfered with the re-opening of the Valley Meat Co. slaughterhouse to be sure, and they've made a big deal over resumption of horse-slaughter in the US -- including New Mexico. But there is no prohibition -- that I know of -- against horse owners slaughtering their own horses for food for themselves, nor am I aware of "animal activists" interfering unless the situation is egregious. In this case, it is egregious because of the video which was clearly intended to provoke, shock and enrage. So Sappington is taking shit for it. Gee. Who'd a thunk? He's demonstrated for all the world to see that he has the power to kill at will, and he seems to want to have that power confirmed to him without consequence or responsibility. He wants the absolute right in other words, apparently to do anything he wants with his property and then put the video on display for anyone to see.

De los Santos seems to following a somewhat different script. From what I've seen of him, he seems to be more interested in the profit potential of slaughtering horses and selling the meat than anything else, but there is no real market in the US or abroad. US slaughtered horsemeat is banned in the EU, and there is so little domestic demand for horsemeat outside the EU that it is hard to imagine that there really is a profit potential. So I can only assume that he and the other advocates for the resumption of horse slaughter for food in the US intend to create a market, probably domestically since restrictions abroad are so severe. Who would want US slaughtered horsemeat? Few people would eat it, though it might wind up in pet food or...

What happened in Europe could be instructive. Horses were being slaughtered in Eastern Europe, and somehow the horsemeat wound up in the commercial beef supply chain. Hm. How could that have happened? It wasn't sold as beef, it was incorporated into beef used for commercially prepared food such as frozen lasagne and such. In other words, it was like "pink slime" -- an extender of sorts, though apparently in some cases, all the meat was horsemeat. Controls were lacking, it seems, and without sufficient regulation and inspection, there is nothing to prevent horsemeat -- or any other "surprise" meat -- from being used this way. If it's cheaper, commercial preparers will buy it, no? Profits! 

I tend to doubt that US slaughtered horsemeat would be cheaper than beef, but you never know. The point is to have a market and exploit it to the hilt. If that means creating a market for horsemeat -- even a fraudulent one -- that's what will happen.

So far as I'm aware, there is no humane way to slaughter horses in a slaughterhouse environment. They panic and fight, and the whole process is gruesome and dangerous for both horses and workers. Horses are not like other livestock commonly slaughtered for food -- which probably has more to do with why they aren't commonly slaughtered for food than any other issue, such as "emotions."

The push to revive commercial horse-slaughtering in the US now that the ban is lifted seems to be driven by something other than a market need -- there isn't one in any realistic sense. Is it more a power-thing? Sadism? Or something else? I've heard the complaints that it has become so expensive to keep horses that there is a need to have some way to dispose of surplus or unwanted -- or unaffordable -- horses that doesn't cost an arm and a leg itself or lead to unnecessary cruelty or neglect, but this argument fails miserably as a rationale for reviving horse-slaughter. The treatment of horses being held for slaughter is appalling, and what happens to them at the slaughterhouse is worse. The fact that a kill-buyer will pay a small amount for a horse to be taken to slaughter shouldn't compensate, but maybe it's enough for those who can no longer maintain a horse. I don't know.

It typically costs an owner several hundred dollars to euthanize and dispose of a horse that's sick or injured or can no longer be cared for, so it may be that being paid a small amount by a kill-buyer instead is worth it.

On the other hand, horses are not raised for food in this country, and simply selling them off to a slaughterhouse is a dead end. Someone winds up paying... Unless, of course, that market for horseflesh is created.

So that's what I think is behind the current push. The viral video of Sappington killing his horse will quite likely delay -- but probably not prevent -- the development of that market.

Shedrow Confessions is a good resource to follow the saga. There is much more to it than just the New Mexico story...

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