After the reports of possible traces of horse meat in IKEA's famous meatballs in Europe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was quick to point out that Americans need not worry. Horse meat isn't brought into the country for human consumption. But since Congress decided not to extend a ban on horse slaughter in 2011, can someone who wants to try horse meat find it here?
"There are currently no establishments in the United States that slaughter horses, and FSIS does not allow imports of horse meat from other countries for human consumption," said Brian Mabry, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in a statement. "None of the countries and companies referenced in the EU export beef to the United States."
In Nov. 2011, Congress decided not to extend a ban on USDA horse meat inspections. Over the five years prior to that, Congress banned the USDA from using any taxpayer funds for horse slaughter inspections through its annual budget appropriations for the department. And since the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect animals for slaughter, carcass by carcass, there was no way for horses to make it to American dinner tables.
But since the ban has been lifted, there still are no protocols for the USDA to conduct equine inspections.
"It is a hugely political issue – it has to do with the slaughter of horses and whether that's acceptable to U.S. society or not – and so there are two sides to the argument," said William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Opponents of horse slaughter essentially say eating horses is not part of American culture, equating it to the slaughter of other pets.
"We have a 250 year relationship in the United States with horses and eating them has never been a part of the equation," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "It would be quite a turn in the road to view animals who helped us settle the country as an appetizer or main course."
The Humane Society of the United States has petitioned the USDA and Food and Drug Administration over the "banned and dangerous" substances it says are "commonly" given to horses sent to slaughter. These include: Acepromazine, an anti-anxiety/tranquilizer, the Humane Society said.
Some proponents argue, on the other hand, that without a market for horse slaughtering and horse meat, saddle horses are mistreated instead of killed in a more humane way at the slaughter house.
Dave Duquette of Hermiston, Ore. said the cost to euthanize a horse is $600 to $2,500. Duquette, 47, is a horse trainer who started a group called United Horsemen in 2007, which is in favor of permitting horse slaughter and meat.
"The problem has gotten worse with horses that are abandoned, neglected, abused and starving to death and the direct cause is this and the economy," Duquette said.
Duquette said not permitting horse meat in the U.S. has wider effects on the horse industry.
"I never had anything to do with horse slaughter. I don't think I ever sent a horse to slaughter in my life," he said.
Proponents also argue that Americans have plenty of other domesticated animals like cattle and sheep; and horses are fundamentally not different.
Hallman said the debate is similar over white-tailed deer in the eastern United States.
"It's a complex debate, but politics around slaughter is the issue," Hallman, who is also a psychologist who studies public perception of risk, said of horse meat. Food safety is not an issue, so long as they are slaughtered without harmful drugs and placed in the food supply. The issue is culture.
Duquette, on the other hand, said horse meat was more prevalent in the U.S. before the animal rights movement strengthened around the 1980s.
"I think it was more common than people realized and there was more of it going on than people know about or paid attention to," he said.