In the state of Texas, horses are both revered—and slaughtered. Texas, home of legendary cowboys and cutting horses, is also home to the only two equine slaughterhouses in the United States. Currently, a bill that would legalize the activities of the slaughterhouses—which sell horse meat overseas for human consumption—is awaiting a floor vote in the Texas legislature.

Sponsored by State Rep. Betty Brown (R-Terrell), House Bill 1324 is stirring a storm of controversy, in Texas and nationally. The bill would allow the slaughterhouses to stay open and in business, despite an opinion issued last August by then-Attorney General John Cornyn, which stated that preparing and processing horse meat for human consumption is illegal.

Brown’s bill would add the phrase “in the United States” to existing Texas law that forbids the sale of horse meat for human food. Thus, the slaughterhouses—Beltex, a Belgian company in Fort Worth, and French-owned Dallas Crown in Kaufman—could legally continue to sell the meat for consumption overseas.

Beltex and Dallas Crown sell horse meat to France, Belgium, Germany and Japan, where it is prized by many diners as a delicacy. The slaughterhouses also produce food that is sold to some zoos in the United States. Also, equine pericardia—the sacs that surround the heart—are used in human open-heart surgery.

The bill’s supporters say the slaughterhouses offer a solution for ranchers and other owners who cannot afford other types of disposal for old or infirm horses.

Horse owners and animal rights groups that oppose the bill say the slaughterhouses also kill healthy horses that are bought at auction specifically for slaughter—and that the slaughterhouses do not treat horses humanely.

Opponents also have cultural tradition, social norms and deep-seated emotion on their side. Americans generally consider horses to be companions, partners in ranching and farming, and sports heroes—not something you would sit down and eat.