It’s the most unsettling sentence in print this week, on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times. “The meat of American racehorses may be too toxic to eat safely because the horses have been injected repeatedly with drugs.”
That’s the warning European food safety officials have sent to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico (there aren’t any in the U.S.) that specialize in processing horses for consumption abroad.
First, an explanation. It may seem that the push for food transparency (Is this food organic? Is this coffee fair trade?) is uniquely American. But, when it comes to purity, the Europeans have us beat in most areas (they require GMO labeling, for instance, which not even California voters have favored). One way Americans are unique is that we don’t eat horses. But just because our forks stop where the reins begin doesn’t mean horse meat isn’t a delicacy abroad. And the fussiness over purity is just as strong for viande chevaline—as the Parisians call it—as it is for any other food. The thing is, the horses others eat are often the horses Americans race.
When horses finish their runs, many are taken across the border, slaughtered, then shipped away to be eaten. Many of the drugs given to race horses are not meant to go into meat humans consume, but this is where the regulations break down. The report details how, because horses aren’t commonly eaten in America, the FDA doesn’t concern itself with whether drugs for horses will taint the meat, though some drugs are labeled “Do not use in horses intended for human consumption.”
There’s a requirement that the horses be pastured for six months, but the Times finds that the rule is easily skirted by unscrupulous sellers
and abattoirs. And while many American tracks will not allow owners who sell horses to slaughterhouses to race, it’s hard to prove if they do. The report says that of the 138,000 American horses taken to slaughter in Canada or Mexico, 15-20 percent were likely former racehorses.
The lax regulations may lead to a push from European regulators to keep horse meat pure. If Canadian and Mexican butchers aren’t testing their meat, then the EU may have to.
If you’re the type to see eating horse meat is an abomination and not a cultural difference, then you may take solace in the fact that of the cheval retailers interviewed in the piece, one has moved online due to a lack of outlets and the other, while seeing strong sales to individuals, has only one restaurant customer.