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."
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.
"The people who are commenting on this are city people, and they don’t know any better," said Michael Crawford, a 49- year-old with a gray handlebar mustache who drives a fuel truck for West Texas Gas. The local economy, thanks to the region’s fracking boom, isn’t doing as badly as other parts of New Mexico, he said while eating green chili stew at Farley’s bar and restaurant on Main Street. Still, if people are fine with the smell a slaughterhouse inevitably brings, "I don’t see a problem with it."
Whether horse-eating itself is desirable "depends on the horse," said Vanessa Reyes, a 34-year-old cosmetologist, at Farley’s. While her fiancé, Raul Zuniga, 29, said it might be "weird," neither were opposed to the plant. "As long as it doesn’t harm anyone, community-wise, go for it. Eat a horse," Reyes said.
Not everyone in Roswell, though, is all right with the idea. Shari Hamilton, a 61-year-old oil and gas employee, said she knows people need jobs. Still, she doesn’t like it.
"We are more sophisticated than that," said Hamilton as she finished her lunch break at Martin’s Capitol Cafe, a Mexican and American food restaurant downtown. "I hate to think we’ve sunk that low."
Horse slaughter is inherently inhumane, even in comparison to pig, lamb, cow or chicken processing, said Nancy Perry, a lobbyist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Washington. Unlike cattle, which tend to remain stationary while being stunned, horses will move their heads, which can leave animals conscious while they’re being dismembered, she said.
Horse meat can also be toxic because of the chemicals animals are given during lives not intended for someone’s dinner plate, she said. Racehorses, show horses, even animals on ranches have different dietary and medical needs, making them less safe to eat, she said.
"They are much more a companion animal than a food animal," she said. "They’re not raised for human consumption."
Supermarkets in the U.K., Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany pulled tainted frozen beef burgers and lasagnas from shelves in January and February after they were found to contain horse meat that wasn’t properly mentioned on the label. The prospect of revived horse slaughter in the U.S. has raised similar concern about co-mingling, even as producers say a potential horse-slaughter industry will be separate from the much larger beef, pork and poultry markets.
After complaints from farm and ranch groups, Congress ended the ban on funding USDA inspections in 2011. Still, the department hasn’t devoted resources to horse slaughter, and animal-welfare groups have fought the applications of Valley Meat and plants in Missouri, Oklahoma and elsewhere that are seeking inspectors.
Valley Meat sued the department to force inspections, saying it had a legal obligation to do so if a plant met federal standards. While that case is pending, the government will inspect slaughterhouses that comply with technical requirements after its inspectors complete necessary training, according to an e-mailed statement from the USDA yesterday.
Company owner Rick de los Santos couldn’t be reached for comment. A. Blair Dunn, attorney for Valley Meat, said the plant could begin slaughtering in the next three weeks. Most of the meat will go to other countries, though selling to U.S. customers isn’t prohibited, he said. Many of the horses the Valley Meat plant will slaughter would have been shipped to Mexico, about 200 miles away, Dunn said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters today he wouldn’t commit to a three-week schedule set out by Valley Meat. "We’re very close to getting the work done that’s needed to be done to allow them to operate," he said.
The USDA is taking time wiring rules for horse slaughter because it needed to incorporate findings from food safety and animal science since 2007, he said.
Lawmakers including Senators Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, and Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, have introduced bills to ban U.S. horse killing for human consumption and prohibit transporting the animals elsewhere for slaughter.
"Horses have been raised for sport, transport, security and companionship, but never for slaughter and consumption," Landrieu said in a statement on her website last week. "There are very few regulations on the drugs given to horses, and we cannot risk introducing dangerously toxic meat into our food supply here at home or abroad."
The ASPCA, along with the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest all back the anti-slaughter legislation.
Opponents say horse-slaughter plants have unusually bad health effects on the surrounding community, with more leftover blood and offal than other slaughterhouses. Valley Meat itself came under scrutiny for poor practices while slaughtering cattle.
Government documents obtained by Front Range Equine Rescue, a Larkspur, Colorado-based horse-protection group, report maggot-infested piles of decaying animals as high as 15 feet on the property.
State inspectors cited Valley Meat in 2010 after finding evidence that animal carcasses had been improperly disposed of at the site, according to a summary from the New Mexico Environment Department. The company paid a $5,000 fine and removed the waste while disputing many of the reported infractions, Dunn said.
Under its settlement with environmental officials, Valley Meat is no longer allowed to compost animal waste on site, said Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the environmental department.
Agricultural organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, the two biggest U.S. farmer groups, support domestic horse slaughter.
Farms and ranches need to be able to have animals slaughtered, said Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. Along with cattle and pecans, his Flying G Ranch just west of Tulsa’s suburbs has about 40 horses, managed by a daughter with a degree in equine science, he said. Horse owners near cities may not be able to bury animals on their land because of zoning codes; rendering facilities may not be available. Without slaughterhouses, horses may be abandoned or mistreated, he said.
"I’ve heard of horses just dropped off in the desert to starve," he said. "Ultimately, our horses are our private property, and we need to be allowed to have options to care for them."
As for the safety of eating horses, Spradling says any meat slaughtered for domestic consumption will be governed by U.S. food-safety regulations.
Sappington, of Valley Meat, says the plant is getting calls from around the world: "We had people calling from Canada, Russia, Belgium," asking whether the plant may be able to ship them horse meat, he said.
Sappington said he consumes horse meat two to three times a week, often serving it to curious guests, who he says always love it. He grills it, makes hamburgers and -- his favorite -- makes chicken fried steak.
"Anything we’ve ever made with meat, we’ve made with horse," he said.
--With assistance from Derek Wallbank in Washington. Editors: Jon Morgan, Steve Geimann
To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Amanda J. Crawford in Roswell, NM at email@example.com