Although the thought of eating horse will turn many people's stomachs, a Canadian industry advocate says it's the humane thing to do because otherwise unwanted animals might be abandoned.
Recent news from Europe that a range of products, including Ikea meatballs, frozen lasagna and Taco Bell beef, were yanked because they contained horse DNA has shone a spotlight on Canada's horse-meat industry.
Canadians aren't big consumers of equine meat, but Canada is a major exporter to markets in Asia and Europe.
Former horse breeder Bill desBarres, chairman of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, says up to 90,000 horses are slaughtered each year in four federally inspected plants – two in Quebec and two in Alberta – and the industry is worth $70-million to $75-million a year to the economy.
Speaking from Medicine Hat, Mr. desBarres said horse is already available in most of Canada's major cities, and he hopes the recent attention on the industry might spur more Canadians to try a different kind of red meat.
Why do you think a lot of people have revulsion to eating horse meat?
Of course the horse is a very, very special animal because he can work and he can play and he can take us for beautiful rides in the hills. He is a lovable animal, as lots of animals are, including sheep, goats and pigs, and everything else. The horse, I think, has been picked on because the animal activist people wanted to pick on an area that may be more vulnerable than others. The bottom line is the horse is meat.
You say you promote eating horse meat because you love horses and care about their welfare. But isn't it difficult to stomach a meat that comes from an animal you consider a pet?
I have horses, and I love them. And I have had cattle that I love. But an end-of-life option for animals is processing. It's an end-of-life option that is humane and has dignity, and contributes to our society and the need for protein in the world.
When cattle are slaughtered, they're usually young animals bred especially to be eaten. What is the age and background of the horses in Canada that go to slaughter?
All ages of horses may go to processing. … A very small percentage of those processed are purpose-bred. [The rest] are horses that maybe have become arthritic or have some health problems that prevent them from doing what their purpose was, or they maybe have a bad attitude – or maybe are just not wanted any more.
What about concerns that there's no reliable system for tracking the drugs given to horses, and people eating horse meat could inadvertently consume phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory often used to treat race horses that can cause serious illness in humans?
If a horse has received phenylbutazone in its life, he is not qualified for presentation at the processing plant. And the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which I have a great deal of respect for – and they are respected globally as probably the top food-safety inspection agency in the world – they test regularly … for medications in meat in all livestock.
Animal-rights activists say it's difficult for horses to be slaughtered humanely, because they have a flight instinct and will thrash around when they're scared, making it difficult to stun them prior to slaughter. Is this true?
Not particularly, no. They are a flight animal, and so are many animals – bison as well, and elk and moose. But all of those animals are processed. … It is absolutely essential that we as horse people require humane handling of the animals.
For those of us who do not partake, what does horse taste like?
Have you eaten moose? Because there's some similarities to the texture and taste of moose and horse, in my experience … It's a little coarser meat.
This interview has been condensed and edited.