Mexican Horse Slaughterhouses

Bloody Work: Mexican Horse Slaughterhouses

© Tara A. Spears

 Horse slaughter2 Most industrialized nations outlaw the killing and rendering of horses yet these same countries are willing to pay three times the price of beef for horsemeat. It is another example of the two-faced morality of the US, Canada, Central Asia, and Europe: ban the slaughter of horses- viewed as companions, pets, and workers- for moral reasons, yet the top eight countries consume 4.7 million horses a year. The hard working Mexicans step up to fill the demand, becoming the largest producer of horsemeat products since 2009, yet these same countries point an ethical finger that decries the cruelty of the process. It’s a classic case of if you don’t want to get your hands dirty, hire the Mexicans to do it. Then blame the Mexicans for the addictions and wide pockets of the other countries that create the market.

There are over 200 international animal rights organizations that are against horse slaughter. Many of these nonprofit groups also operate equine rescue and sanctuary facilities and their websites have horrifying pictures of the process. The fact remains that the four Mexican slaughter houses, located in Aguascalientes, Jerez, and Fresnillo, are overseen by the USDA food inspection agency, the European Food administration, and the Mexican Health department and therefore comply with all of the government regulations. The plants in Zacatecas state serve the European market, which bars the importation of meat from animals that have not been stunned prior to being bled. “The use of a pole-axe, hammer or puntilla is prohibited by the European Convention. Furthermore, large animals must neither be suspended nor have their movements restricted before being stunned” the European Convention’s slaughter law states.

Records indicate that the Mexican facilities are owned by European companies. In the last two years, there has been a fourfold increase in U.S. exports to Mexico, fueled by a growing surplus of unwanted American horses (more than 100,000 per year,) according to Dr. Timothy Cordes, senior staff veterinarian with the USDA service. “These are just remarkable numbers.”

Horse slaughterTo get a better idea of how the Mexican horse slaughter industry operates, a delegation representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners arranged a tour of two Mexican slaughter facilities in the central Mexican city of Zacatecas in 2010. The experts touring the facility included AAEP veterinarians for equine programs with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, past presidents Drs. Tom R. Lenz and Doug G. Corey, as well as an international member of the AAEP board of directors, Dr. Sergio Salinas. They first toured one of the two South American-owned plants that operate under European Union and Mexican slaughter regulations. Five federal Mexican veterinary inspectors work at the plant in addition to three company veterinarians. In all, 200 are employed there. About 1,000 horses are processed a week; half are Mexican and the rest from the United States. Mexican and U.S. horses are kept separate during travel but are processed at the same facilities. Just the number of jobs created by the four slaughterhouses, plus all the ancilitory jobs in related industries- butchers, packaging, shipping, clerical- creates a significant economic impact for the Mexican economy.

“All of the American horses arrive in sealed trailers,” Dr. Lenz said, noting that the horses aren’t unloaded or sold anywhere, but go straight from the border to the plant. A federal seal is placed on the horses at the border. They are then shipped for 10 to 12 hours to one of the two federal inspection type, or TIF, plants in Zacatecas. “They say they could make it in eight hours but choose 10 to 12 because they arrive in better condition,” Dr. Lenz said.

Horse slaughter3On arrival at the processing plant, a federal Mexican veterinarian cuts the seal. Any horses severely injured in transport are euthanized. The administrators at the slaughterhouse commented that the price of horses has gone down; meanwhile, the cost to ship a horse from Morton, Texas, to Zacatecas stays at about $200.

Before processing, workers move the horses with flags rather than whips. One at a time the horses go into stocks. Once in place, a hydraulic bar pushes the horse forward while a wedge-shaped stainless steel device comes under the chin and cradles the head. This limits the horse’s movement, Dr. Lenz said, which better facilitates placement of the captive device.

Dr. Lenz watched a couple dozen horses being killed by captive bolt, with which he said the employees were “extremely accurate.” The skulls were then inspected for glanders and the carcasses randomly tested for drug residues and parasites in the meat as well as Escherichia coli and Salmonella infections. Employees wear white coveralls, hats, gloves, masks, and hairnets while working, in addition to scrubbing their boots before coming in and out of the processing area. The facility ships the meat to Japan and Europe for human consumption.

Other parts from the horse do not go to waste. The hides are sent to Italy, hair from the mane and tail goes to China for paintbrushes, the small intestines go to Egypt for sausage casings, the tendons go to Japan for human consumption, and the hooves and tail (without the hair) to a rendering plant. “(The plant) was an extremely clean, well-run plant. … From a veterinary perspective, the animals were handled well,” Dr. Corey said in his written report.

The plants in Zacatecas state serve the European market, which bars the importation of meat from animals that have not been stunned prior to being bled. “The use of a pole-axe, hammer or puntilla (lance-like tool used in bullfighting) is prohibited by the European Convention. Furthermore, large animals must neither be suspended nor have their movements restricted before being stunned” the European Convention’s slaughter law states. As a true animal lover, who doesn’t even kill spiders and snakes, I was shocked when researching the slaughter process. However, I realized that while I couldn’t kill a chicken and I wouldn’t eat horsemeat, the preparing of animal flesh for human consumption needs to be considered a business and viewed unemotionally.

According to the US Federal legislation passed in 2007, The Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act (PECA) eliminated North American equine slaughter and regulated the transportation within the US. But there are steps in the process that are not controlled, and all of the mandates don’t apply outside the US borders.

Most American horses going to slaughter arrive at the slaughterhouse via livestock auctions where they are bought by “killer-buyers” working for the slaughter plants. The killer-buyers travel from auction to auction to collect horses they can then sell to the slaughterhouses at a profit. These killer-buyers have a financial incentive to outbid other potential purchasers of the horse, and many individuals selling their horses at auction are unaware that they risk placing their horses in the hands of killer buyers simply by entering them into the auction ring. Few horse owners electively sell their horses to slaughter.

Much of the domestic transport of horses to slaughter is unregulated, with only the final leg of the journey to the slaughterhouse covered by federal regulations. This means that slaughter-bound horses continue to be moved on double-deck trailers designed for cattle and pigs in direct violation of Congressional intent. Not only are the conveyances dangerously top-heavy and have been the cause of multiple fatal accidents but they are fundamentally inhumane for transporting equine, forcing many horses to travel in a bent position.

Horse meat is cut into steaks, sausage, chops, salami and sandwich slices for human consumption, and is put in dog food where it is listed as unspecific “animal” by-products, “animal” meal or “animal” digest. “Animal” digest is the remains of pretty much any part of any animal (blood, teeth, hair, spleen). Horse parts are not used to make glue in the last 50 years.

The issue with Mexican equine slaughterhouses is not whether the horses are painlessly processed, but why is there such demand for the product. Money always dictates which businesses flourish, governments always decree how business is to be done. Don’t blame the Mexican workers for the appetites of the countries that demand the product- Mexicans don’t eat horsemeat; they just want an honest job.

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