By SCOTT BECKSTEAD
For the Capital Press
Dwell with me for a moment on these images:
A tawny Kiger mare and her hardy buckskin foal, racing together free as the wind across a high desert landscape.
A gleaming black colt, straining down the homestretch with all his heart to be the first to plunge under the wire.
A grizzled old Appaloosa gelding, tenderly enduring while a little girl weaves pretty ribbons into the sparse wisps of his mane and tail.
These images are iconic. They are sentimental, even romantic. And yes, they evoke a powerful emotional response.
Americans love our dogs, we pamper our cats, but we honor and revere our horses. More than any other animal, horses were indispensable in settling the American frontier. Today we look to them as cultural and historical icons, as companions and partners in work and sport, and as beloved friends to share in our pastimes.
The American people's abiding love for these creatures means that the business of inhumanely slaughtering them for their meat will always be greeted with disgust in this country. But even without sentiment and romance, horse slaughter in the U.S. is a non-starter.
Take the potentially toxic properties of the meat of American horses. Horses in the U.S. are neither raised nor generally regarded as food-producing animals. Throughout their lives, they consistently receive various, undocumented veterinary pharmaceuticals, such as Phenylbutazone (i.e. "bute"), which are banned by the Food and Drug Administration from use in food producing animals because of known dangers, or the effects of which have not been assessed in humans.
The Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue have petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA to declare meat from American horses with undocumented medical histories as unfit for human consumption. If the petitions are granted, horses without a documented medical history will not be allowed to be slaughtered in America for human consumption.
As we saw recently in Europe, beef products testing positive for horsemeat has eroded consumer confidence and resulted in a food fraud scandal. If horse slaughter is allowed to resume here in the U.S., then the reputation of the entire American meat industry will become suspect in the eyes of American consumers and other nations who import U.S. meat. It is this scenario that makes the American beef industry's support of horse slaughter all the more baffling and misguided.
This legislative session, several members of Congress have introduced the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act (H.R. 1094/S. 541), which would prevent the opening of horse slaughter operations in the U.S., end the current export of American horses for slaughter abroad, and protect the public from consuming potentially toxic horsemeat.
The USDA is processing at least six applications for horse slaughter inspections in various locations around the country. What if these applications for inspection are approved? Then investors will be entering an uncertain regulatory environment, with ongoing public criticism, and the question of whether federal inspectors will be able to approve horsemeat for human consumption and export.
At the heart of the issue is Americans' love of horses. We coax them as youngsters to trust us, to depend on us, to give us their loyalty and service. Yet we're supposed to welcome a process that subjects pet ponies, retired racers, and former show horses to a process of unimaginable suffering and terror? It's not humane, and it's certainly not love. That's the ultimate betrayal of a good and trusted friend.
Scott Beckstead is senior Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States.