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Horse Meat Comeback Pits Jobs Against Animal Welfare

March 20, 2013
Horse meat map

March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Tim Sappington is ready to buy horses for Valley Meat Co., which is seeking to open the first U.S. horse slaughterhouse since 2007. Right now he’s the only paid employee, and he puts his money where his mouth is.

He eats horse meat. And he likes it.

"I’ve eaten it for years," said Sappington, who slaughters the animals himself and keeps a meat locker stocked at his home near Roswell, New Mexico.

Sappington and others see the plan to reopen the shuttered cattle facility about 8 miles outside Roswell, near a ranch that is home to a Kentucky Derby winner, as a chance to reclaim jobs now going to Mexico.

The idea of killing horses for food has generated heated opposition from animal-welfare advocates who say it is cruel and could introduce unhealthy meat into the food supply, and it has spurred legislation in Congress to keep it from happening.

While horse meat is consumed in many nations, including France, China, Mexico and Russia, its presence in U.K. meat set off an outcry in Europe earlier this year that devastated consumer demand for suddenly suspect beef. It could do the same in the U.S., said Marion Nestle, a public-health and nutrition expert at New York University.

"We don’t eat animals with names," she said. "We don’t eat dogs, we don’t eat cats, and we are horrified when people do. The same is true of horses."

Horse Exports

About 4.6 million horses lived on U.S. farms in 2007, the last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted them and the final year of domestic slaughter, which wound down after Congress stopped funding federal inspection of horse facilities. The U.S. slaughtered 94,037 animals in 2005, the last full year before funding dried up.

Without a U.S. plant, horses have gone to Mexico or Canada for slaughter, enduring thousands of miles in trucks and on trains criticized both by animal-welfare groups as cruel and by agricultural organizations as an argument for a domestic industry. Exports of live horses last year to other North American countries were 197,442, more than double the number in 2007 and more than six times what it was a decade ago.

In Roswell, a community of about 50,000 that draws tourists with the legend of a UFO crash in the 1940s, some residents are interested in the up to 100 jobs Valley Meat says it may create. The company’s plant last processed cattle about a year ago.

‘City People’

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