Published on June 28, 1998

Californians to Vote on Slaughter
Horse Meat Opponents Fight

From Horse to Horsemeat
Holding pen

Chute to “kill box”

Retractable bolt immobilizes animal

Hung by hind leg on conveyer belt

Throat cut, blood drained

Certified for public consumption

Storing, cutting, grinding, trimming, boning

“Horse meat is a little bit cheaper than beef in Europe.”
— Olivier Kemseke, horse plant owner.

By Brian Hartman
June 28, 1998 — California voters will decide a matter of considerable taste and delicacy in November: Should people eat horses?
     Horse meat is a staple for many outside the United States. And thousands of horses are slaughtered here each year to feed the appetites of meat-eaters in France, Switzerland, Germany and other nations in Europe and Asia.

The notion sickens animal rights activists, who hope their California ballot initiative will draw national attention to an industry unknown to most Americans.
     “Let them eat their own horses,” said Cathleen Doyle of the California Equine Council, a co-sponsor of the Save the Horses initiative. “These are our companions and pets … We would no more allow this to be happening to our dogs and cats—that they would be rounded up, slaughtered and the meat sent off to be eaten—and certainly there are countries where dogs and cats are eaten.”
     In 1997, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, 88,806 horses were slaughtered for export in the United States. That’s down substantially from 113,645 in 1996. But activists estimate that around 10,000 of those horses came from California.
     “They cram 48 of them onto a truck for an excruciating three-day journey to Texas,” said Sherry DeBoer of the non-profit group Political Animals, another co-sponsor of the initiative.

Horse Plants Defend Slaughter
But slaughterhouse operators say they are merely saving unwanted horses, no longer good to ride, from lives of abuse, neglect and pain. While some horses are harvested for export, most that make it to the slaughterhouse are bought at auction.
     “We get the horse that is in bad shape,” said Olivier Kemseke, the Belgian-born owner of Dallas Crown, Inc., one of four horse plants in the United States. “To stop and ban horse slaughter is unrealistic and unthinkable.”
     Kemseke, a self-styled horse lover who says he did show-jumping for 15 years in Belgium, runs a plant in Kaufman, Texas . The plant can slaughter up to 800 horses a day, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
     Federal regulations mandate that the horses be killed, under the watch of USDA inspectors, with a “captive bolt.” As in the slaughter of pigs and cows, this four-inch steel bolt is driven swiftly through the skull and into the brain.
     Dr. Robert Fetzner, director of slaughter operations at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the process is intended to “render the animal insensitive to pain immediately.”
     The horse is then drained of blood, cut, chilled and flown to Europe for shipment to butchers.
     “We do it with pride, as weird as that might seem,” said Kemseke. “It is a business like any other business. And in Europe, horse meat has been in demand … A lot of doctors recommend it because it’s low in cholesterol and it’s actually the cleanest meat to eat.”

Killing Process Disputed
Aside from their disgust with the notion of eating horse, initiative supporters say the slaughter itself is inhumane. Horses are herded into a “kill box” with electrical prods. There the captive bolt, activists say, often misses its mark and must be slammed into the skull as many as five times before the horse is killed. Fetzner doubts these reports, saying the USDA has inspectors monitoring every phase of the process for each horse slaughtered in the United States. Most of the inspectors, Fetzner included, are veterinarians by trade.
     “I don’t like it myself,” Fetzner said. “I was a practitioner at one time, and my main patient was a horse, and I’ve had some of my staff people get very upset by going in to watch horses being slaughtered.”
     But he insists its the only way to ensure the horses are being killed humanely.
     Activists gathered 737,000 signatures. They are raising money for graphic commercials, already in the can, with the secretly taped slaughter of a horse.

Modest Ad Campaign Planned
Doyle says Save the Horses is “ready to go with commercials showing that it is not quick, clean and efficient.”
     She plans late-night ad buys in as many California districts as possible, but acknowledges she lack the cash to blanket the state’s airwaves. More important, Doyle hopes to make some noise by getting political reporters to review the graphic commercials after they air.
     Save the Horses also plans mass mailings to raise more cash.
     Decision Research, a Washington polling firm, has conducted surveys for Save the Horses that, Doyle said, show widespread support for the initiative.
     The initiative would make it a crime to possess or transfer a horse, burro, pony or mule for the purposes of human consumption. Doyle said 70 percent of respondents to their poll said they would support the measure.
     July 7 is the deadline for opponents of the initiative to submit a defense of the industry that can be distributed to voters.