The discovery of horse DNA in food products sold throughout Europe has set off a scandal, shaking confidence in Europe's food industry and angering consumers.
But believe it or not, it’s actually legal to slaughter horses for human consumption in the U.S. In November 2011, Congress quietly lifted a five-year ban on funding for horse processing inspections.
Since the ban was lifted, no horse slaughterhouses have successfully opened, according to Holly Hazard, a senior vice president at the Humane Society of the United States who tracks equine rights issues.
“We have yet to have a new [horse processing] facility open in this country,” Hazard said, adding that attempts to open slaughterhouses in New Mexico and Missouri last year were scrapped due to public outrage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said that if a horse slaughtering plant were to open, the agency would perform inspections to ensure it complied with federal laws.
Before Congress defunded inspections in 2007, there were just three equine processing plants in the continental U.S. -- two in Texas, one in Illinois. All three facilities were shuttered when the slaughtering ban took effect, the Associated Press reported.
At the peak of their production powers, these slaughterhouses primarily exported horsemeat to Mexico and Canada for human consumption, Hazard said.
One advocate of selling horse meat said that the removal of the ban allows the horse processing industry to regain a foothold in the market.
"Eighty percent of a $102 billion-a-year industry was directly affected when they took slaughter away," said David Duquette, president of the United Horsemen, a group that lobbied to lift the ban.
Duquette added that there are ongoing efforts to revive the horse meat processing industry, but declined to provide additional information about those attempts.
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, are confident that widespread repulsion at the thought of eating horse meat will keep it out of the mainstream.
"There are certainly communities that have considered [reviving horse slaughtering]," said Nancy Perry, a senior vice president at the ASPCA. But the vast majority of Americans -- a staggering 80 percent, according to a recent ASPCA poll -- oppose the practice, Perry said.
'Companions and partners, not food'
Polling data and public opinion suggest it's highly unlikely horse meat will move to the center of American culinary culture. After all, they’re the stars of beloved children’s literature, Hollywood movies, and Wild West folklore.
“We believe horses are iconic figures in American culture,” Hazard said. “The vast majority of Americans think they’re companions and partners, not food.”
Hazard said she’s not aware of any attempts to introduce horse meat on restaurant menus. The one exception: a proposal, in September of last year, to serve Canadian-bred horse tartare -- also known as raw horse meat -- at a museum restaurant in New York City.
However, M. Wells Dinette's prospective menu item at MoMA PS1 was scuttled after animal rights activists and public health officials cried foul.
The restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Hugue Dufour, released a statement after the controversy subsided defending his exotic dish.
“We thought about serving it because we like to offer customers new things,” the statement said. “Whatever else horses are – draft animals, companions, transport – their meat is also delicious and affordable.”
Nevertheless, most Americans still consider horse meat off-limits, although that hasn't always been the case.
At the close of World War II, when beef was in short supply, many Americans got their protein boosts from horse meat. Republicans blamed the meat scarcity on President Truman, giving him the nickname “Horsemeat Harry.”
During the early 1970s, beef prices went through the roof, forcing cash-strapped shoppers to buy cheap horse meat instead. The custom was so common it showed up as a subplot on a 1973 episode of the sitcom “All in the Family.”
Harvard University’s Faculty Club reportedly served horse meat for more than 100 years before it dropped the menu item in the 1980s.