By DAVID A. DUQUETTE
For the Capital Press
The discovery of horse meat in European products labeled otherwise has touched off a flurry of global reaction and over-reaction.
While animal rights groups frantically maneuvered the story in support of their effort to ban human consumption of horses, a more significant effect of the publicity and inevitable jokes -- Do we have to worry about sea horse meat in Fish McBites? -- has been to reduce the shudder factor surrounding horse as a menu choice.
If a horse is unwanted and out of options, why not humanely repurpose it as a protein source? Suddenly, this notion appears less cringeworthy, if not downright palatable.
Since horse meat galloped into the headlines, curiosity-seekers have driven sales of 100 percent horse burgers at a pair of London pubs, The Lord Nelson and The Three Compasses, through the roof. One establishment offers patties in a range of theme-named portions, from the bite-sized 2-ounce "Shetland" to the hearty "Triple Trojan." They're served with a variety of toppings, including grilled onions, black pepper mayonnaise, fried egg, brie and jalapenos.
Embracing America's equines both as a potential entrée and a beloved partner for work or recreation is a reasonable and well-rounded view that the animal rights movement desperately wants to offset. Opponents of horse processing insist we can't love horses and eat them, yet the only support for this opinion is rooted in cultural bias and emotion.
Heartfelt affection aside, we need options for our country's excess horse population, both domestic and feral. Consider that the wild horse herds on U.S. public land double in size approximately every four years, and according to the Bureau of Land Management, the wild population already exceeds available resources by 11,000 animals. The BLM spent more than $72 million on these horses last year, and the majority of that, $43 million, was the cost to care for the 50,717 wild horses in captivity.
Animal activist groups hope you will join them in the belief that the stealthy introduction of Black Beauty's flesh into the European food supply -- which, presumably, is nothing new -- exposes the immoral acts of horse butchers who callously oppress gentle equine souls in the name of profiteering. Furthermore, these activists proclaim horse meat is, by definition, tainted with chemicals that will kill you if you eat it.
America is full of people who deeply love horses and also support the existence of a humane, regulated domestic slaughter industry to prevent unwanted equines' needless suffering. And while the product testing of Ikea meatballs, Findus lasagna and Tesco burgers did detect horse masquerading as something other than itself, the tests did not identify a single consumer health hazard lurking in the species-ambiguous food.
"I would still eat these meatballs. No problem," said Zuzana Navelkova, who oversees operations at the Czech laboratory that detected the presence of equine DNA in the Ikea food product last month.
It is time to reveal this food safety argument for what it is: an effort to divert the horse slaughter debate from its central issue of animal welfare. The animal rights groups that successfully shut down American horse processing plants in 2007 hope you will disregard the effect of the closure -- condemning hundreds upon thousands of unwanted equines to deplorable suffering, neglect and abandonment, a fate far worse than instant death by captive bolt in a processing plant.
These facts are detailed in a June 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office study, which concluded that action was needed to correct the horse welfare crisis following the slaughter ban -- action conspicuously absent from the animal rights agenda.
Attempting to link animal welfare issues to food health hazards is a familiar animal rights tactic. This so-called horse meat "scandal" provides animal rights groups a convenient opportunity to go after the horse industry in a manner similar to the legislative attacks upon the American farmers and ranchers who produce our country's pork, beef, poultry, egg and dairy products.
The horse meat conversation should be less about the meat and more about the horse. While the animal rights movement believes it is impossible for horse processing plants to exist in a humane nation, the truth is, a humane nation cannot exist without them.
David Duquette, Hermiston, Ore., is the president and founder of United Horsemen, a 501c3 group which educates the public about equine industry issues affecting recreational riders, professional horsemen and their animals.