Activists and at least one state lawmaker are trying to prevent the owners of a horse slaughterhouse that ships the meat overseas for human consumption from reopening the facility that burned down last year.
"If the Belgians and French want to eat horses, let them eat their own," said State Rep. Robert S. Molaro, D-Chicago, who hopes to pass legislation during this month's veto session that would outlaw horse slaughter in Illinois. "Horses never have been raised for food in America. They're companion animals."
The effort comes as Cavel International is rebuilding the 16,000-square foot plant — one of three in the United States — to reopen next year. The facility is designed to slaughter up to 100 horses a day.
While most Americans won't eat horsemeat, many Japanese and Europeans have no qualms about doing so. It is commonly sold abroad in butcher shops and supermarkets and is served in restaurants.
Most of the horsemeat in Europe is sold by farmers in Romania and Poland but American horsemeat is considered superior because horses here are better fed and cared for.
At Cavel, where the slaughter of 15,000 horses a year generated more than $10 million annually before the plant closed last year, officials are confident about their prospects of reopening.
"We're not terribly concerned about the legislation," Cavel project manager James Tucker said. "On one hand (outlawing horse slaughter) would solve the problem for the very people who are concerned about it. But you'd be defining how a farmer or a horse owner could dispose of his animals, and I can't imagine a legislature doing that. We're not forcing people to bring their horses here."
The new plant is expected to provide as many as 40 jobs — one reason why Rep. David Wirsing, R-Sycamore, said he'd oppose passing of the anti-slaughter legislation.
"We slaughter pork and beef and poultry in this country and export it," said Wirsing. "Exporting horsemeat is not that different from something we are already doing."
Besides, he said, he has heard that it can cost a farmer as much as $800 to put a horse down and have the carcass hauled away. "If I had a horse I didn't want because of age or other considerations, and a slaughterhouse would pay me for it, I would sell it," he said.
But there are signs, that the "anti-horse slaughter movement is gathering momentum because of the media attention," said Chris Heyde, policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.
Since the early 1990s, the number of U.S. slaughterhouses has fallen from about 12 — in part because of industry consolidation and what activists say is a growing public awareness of horse slaughtering. The industry, for example, made international headlines over the summer when 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was sold for slaughter after his Japanese owners found him to be a poor stud.
"Most people don't know that the horse-slaughter industry exists, but once they do, they want to support our efforts," said Heyde. "Everybody loves horses. They're part of our industry."