Horse slaughter: the meat of the matter now that Congress has lifted controversial ban

horse meatIf you’re of a certain age, you might recall that until the 1940’s, horse was eaten in the United States–most notably during World War II, when beef prices rose and supply dwindled. By the eighties, dining on Mr. Ed definitely wasn’t culturally acceptable, even if purchased for “pet food,” and in 1998, California Proposition 6 outlawed horse meat and slaughter for human consumption.

Why, when so much of the world–including much of the EU, Central Asia, Polynesia, Latin America, and Japan–routinely dines upon this delicious, lean, low cholesterol, abundant meat, do we shun it? Blame anthropomorphism and our fervent equestrian culture. Like dogs, cats, guinea pig, alpaca, and other cute, furry creatures consumed with gusto by other ethnicities, Americans just aren’t down with eating what we consider pets.

According to The Chicago Tribune, however, it’s likely that at least one national horse abattoir (slaughterhouse) will be opening soon, most likely in the Midwest. As stated in the story, “Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.”

Before you get on your high horse (sorry) over this seemingly inhumane turn of events, let’s examine why the ban was passed in the first place, and why reversing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I should also state that I grew up on a horse ranch, and to me, meat is meat. My issues regarding its consumption have and always will lie with humane treatment of said animals during their life up until what should be a quick, merciful death. Is there such a thing as a humane death? Let’s just say that some methods of livestock slaughter are less traumatic than others. But that’s a separate issue, and not the point of this piece.

Despite our cultural aversion to eating horse, the U.S. still slaughtered old, sick,and injured animals, as well as retired racehorses. Even young healthy animals were sent to slaughter for a variety of reasons including overbreeding, profit, or abandonment. Even wild horses and burros were rounded up for slaughter as part of culling programs; it’s still necessary to thin herds to keep them sustainable, as well as protect their habitat from overgrazing and erosion; starvation and predation are cruel deaths. Fortunately, these animals are now protected species and legally can’t be sent to slaughter, so they’re put up for adoption. The downside? What happens to aging and unsound animals, now that rescues and sanctuaries are at capacity and struggling for funding?

The U.S. exported horse meat to countries that do consume it, although it was also sold domestically to feed zoo animals. In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S., in DeKalb, Illinois, was shut down by court order, and that was that until the ban was lifted last month.

Photo credit: Flicker user Atli Harðarson]

horse meatIs this a good thing? The result of abattoir closures means that there’s no outlet–-humane or otherwise–-for horses that can no longer be used for work or pleasure. Few people can afford to keep horses as pets due to age, illness, or injury, and as previously stated, most horse rescues are at capacity or struggling to find funding. The recession has only increased this problem.

The Tribune cites a federal report from June, 2011, that noted local animal welfare organizations reported a spike in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. In Colorado, for example, data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent — from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009. Explains Cheri White Owl, founder of the Oklahoma nonprofit Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, “People [are] deciding to pay their mortgage or keep their horse.”

Adds Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state lawmaker and vice president of the non-profit, pro-slaughter organization United Horsemen, “Ranchers used to be able to sell horses that were too old or unfit for work to slaughterhouses but now they have to ship them to butchers in Canada and Mexico [the latter of which has even more inhumane handling and shipping practices], where they fetch less than half the price.”

The Tribune reports that the U.S. Government Accountability Office also determined that about 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010: nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007.

I’m not disputing the lack of humanity previously displayed by U.S. livestock auctions and transport companies taking horses to slaughter (current treatment of other livestock: also fodder for another story). Fortunately, the 1996 federal Farm Bill mandated more humane conditions. Unfortunately, it didn’t go into effect until 2001. And the down side of reinstating horse abattoirs here, according to the Tribune, is that the Obama’s ban-reversal won’t “allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House aim to trim federal spending.”
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Animal welfare aside, the loss of horse abattoirs is a divisive issue. I’m of the opinion that it’s impractical and wasteful to not have an outlet for surplus animals. This, of course, assuming the transport and facilities abide by regulations. I’m not a supporter of industrial livestock production and thus large abattoirs, which have been documented to cause undue stress to animals. Despite that issue, isn’t it ultimately more kind to put an end to their suffering, and make good use of the meat?

Proponents of horse slaughter frequently make the comparison to the millions of dogs and cats that are euthanized yearly in the U.S., because their owners were too irresponsible to spay or neuter. The cremation of these poor creatures is more than just a senseless loss of life: it’s wasteful.

While I’m sympathetic to recession-impacted horse owners, keeping a horse isn’t cheap no matter what your financial situation. When you buy, adopt, or take in any “pet,” you’re responsible for its welfare. If you can’t commit to providing for that animal for the duration of its life (barring certain illness/injury situations), have the decency to do the necessary research and surrender it to a reputable animal rescue or loving home.

If you’re not capable of that, a.) please don’t ever have children, and b.) never own a pet. It’s a living creature, not a toy, and I have absolutely no tolerance for irresponsible pet owners. There are valid arguments on both sides of the horse slaughter debate, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the humane treatment of the animals in question.

[Photo credits: cheval, Flicker user noodlepie; sashimi, Flickr user rc!]

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

North American rodeosIn honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;North American rodeosSheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

The worst zoo I ever saw

zoo, Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Lion ZooI feel sorry for my Harari friends.

During my stay in Harar, Ethiopia, they were so hospitable, so eager to ensure I had a 100% positive impression of their city and country. For the most part I did, and I left for the capital Addis Ababa with lots of great things to say about Ethiopia.

They should have warned me not to visit the Lion Zoo in Addis Ababa.

It’s billed as a natural wonder, where you can see rare Ethiopian black-maned lions descended from the pride that was kept in Haile Selassie’s palace. In reality, it’s a sad display of animal cruelty and neglect.

The lions, primates, and other animals are kept in undersized cages with bare concrete floors. They look bored, flabby, resigned. Several of them look sick. Visitors shout at the listless animals or even throw pebbles to get them to move. Some toss packets of chocolate or potato chips to the monkeys and laugh as they tear the packages apart to get to the food inside.

The worst are the lions, proud carnivores, kings of the wilderness, reduced to trapped objects of amusement for bored city dwellers who don’t give a shit about nature. The lions lie around most of the time, doing nothing. Occasionally one will get its feet, shake its dirty mane, take a few steps before realizing there’s nowhere to go, and then sit down with an air of defeat.

The whole place made me feel ill, yet I can’t feel morally superior. I come from a country where people freak out if someone beats a dog but cheer when a Third World country gets carpet bombed. Where a zoo like this would be a national scandal but people eat meat raised on factory farms that make Ethiopia’s Lion Zoo look like a nature reserve. Only vegans can talk about animal cruelty from any moral high ground, and I’m not a vegan. Meat tastes too good.

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But a travesty like this zoo is totally unnecessary. Ethiopia is anxious to promote itself as a tourist destination, a friendly, civilized country where Westerners can feel at home. Well, if it wants to do that, it better do something about the Lion Zoo.

Like shut it down.

So to my Harari friends, I’m sorry. You came close to getting a 100% positive series (well, except for my bumbling around Ethiopia’s Somali region) but it was not to be. I understand Ethiopia has bigger priorities than a few animals in a zoo in Addis Ababa, but if you want to make a positive impression on Western visitors, this place has got to go.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: Tomoca: the best little coffeehouse in Africa!

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

shark finAs a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]shark fin Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimatelyshark fin wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.
shark fin
Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.shark fin

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.
shark fin
As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Hold the dog, please. China’s proposed ban on sale of dog and cat meat

Most people will agree that dog is man’s best friend. In parts of Asia, however, it’s also what’s for dinner. The consumption of dog and cat meat by humans is practiced in parts of China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. Cat is eaten in parts of China and South America. The times they are a-changin’, however, because the Chinese government is considering legislation that would make eating dogs and cats illegal there, in part because of how the practice negatively impacts overseas tourism.

The Chinese government has signaled a willingness to take the meat off the market. To avoid upsetting international visitors during the Beijing Olympics, officials ordered dog meat off the menus at local markets. Officials in Guangzhou have warned vendors to stop selling it ahead of the Asian Games, which will be held there later this year.

Professor Chang Jiwen of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences is one of the law’s top campaigners. “Cats and dogs are loyal friends to humans,” he said. “A ban on eating them would show China has reached a new level of civilization.” Anyone else finding irony in that statement, considering 2007’s massive pet food recall — the result of melamine-tainted exports produced in China?

While inconceivable to most North Americans and Europeans, these animals have been used as food for thousands of years, usually for purported medicinal purposes, although poverty also plays a role in some countries or regions.

While owning dogs and cats for house pets isn’t the norm throughout Asia, it’s certainly common in China. But the roles of ingredient and animal companion never cross: special meat markets exist that cater exclusively to the sale of dogs and cats for the meat trade. Chang cautions, however that there is always a chance they’re someone’s lost or stolen pet.

Regardless of how you feel about dining on dog, the most critical issue regarding this “specialty meat” trade is animal welfare. The animals can be kept in horrifying conditions until they’re sold at market, and subjected to cruel, inhumane treatment. And before you condemn certain cultures as barbaric, take a second to think about the conditions in puppy mills and factory farms in the United States. Livestock sold at auction for the commercial meat market, and live meat animals and poultry at slaughterhouses may also be subjected to inhumane treatment. The U.S. government is cracking down on these abuses, but factory farms don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The ban on eating dog and cat meat is part of a larger proposal to toughen laws on animal welfare. Individual violators could face up to 15 days in prison and a small fine. Businesses found guilty of selling the meat risk fines up to 500,000 yuan ($73,500.)

The legislation is gaining support from China’s growing number of pet owners. With living standards rising and disposable income growing, more Guangzhou residents are investing in house pets.

Meat vendors and specialty restaurants, however, see their livelihoods at stake.”The dogs you raise at home, you shouldn’t eat,” says Pan, a butcher who also declined to give his first name. “The kind raised for eating, we can eat those.”

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the law prohibiting cat and dog meat could take as long as a decade to pass.

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