To most Canadians the very idea of eating horsemeat is repulsive. Because few people have any contact with the animal once known as man’s best friend, they persist in seeing the horse in a romantic light—a Black Stallion or Flicka running free with nostrils flared and tail flying. To the realistic few in a booming business that will kill tens of thousands this year, the North American horse is seen for what it now is—on an average weight of half a ton at 70 cents a pound—worth more dead than alive. “Our relationship with the horse is changing,” says Russell Eugene, a 30-year-old horse owner and blacksmith who works in the Toronto area. “It’s like the Newfoundlanders’
relationship with the seal. Horses are going to the plants because meat is their highest value.” As the demand for Canadian horseflesh increases from countries such as France, Japan and Belgium, meat buyers are scrambling to keep the killing plants supplied. And their methods are beginning to draw criticism to an industry once nearly invisible.
Canada has been slaughtering horses for both the pet-food and human-consumption markets since the Second World War. In the ’50s and early ’60s the industry was meeting the demand by killing “clunkers” —horses that were too old or crippled to be of any use. But in the ’70s beef prices jumped, economies slumped and in Europe and Asia people bought more and more horsemeat. Canada exported less than 11 million pounds in 1967. By last year, the figure had more than tripled and a record 34.9 million pounds were shipped for human consumption. Agriculture Canada, whose job it is to inspect the eight exporting plants in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba, won’t release the actual numbers of horses slaughtered, but it is estimated that at
least 150,000 horses—almost half the country’s equine population—will die for meat this year. Where will meat buyers find them? At hundreds of small-town auctions, racetracks, dude ranches and private boarding stables. They will also import them from the United States.
It is this practice of importing for slaughter that has horse lovers so upset. In order to avoid mandatory testing at the Canadian border, dealers are allowed to seal horses into trucks when they pick them up. But the laws that govern the humane transportation of “cattle, hogs and other livestock” aren’t applied to loads of 20 or more horses crammed into slippery-floored trucks wdthout benefit of stalls or food. Don Hepworth, chief investigator with the Ontario Humane Society, says he has been forced to destroy horses he found trampled in such shipments. “Some were definitely meat horses—crippled or blind,” he says. “Others were so bright and clean you could almost see
the brush marks on their coats. All of them were loaded in like so many bundles of firewood.”
In response to this kind of inhumane treatment, the Canadian Horse and Pony Protection Association was formed in February. Echoing Hepw'orth’s complaint, CHAPPA’s 97 members are working with the Ontario Humane Society as a “horse welfare committee” to educate the public. Says Lynda Yungblut, president of the London-based association: “It’s a new problem and we need stricter controls.” Although she is not totally opposed to sending horses for meat (“Some are better off that way”), she is shocked by the
escalation in price and numbers as well as the fact that even a young, healthy horse sold at an auction anywhere in Canada today stands a 50-per-cent chance of ending up at a meat plant. The backlash is growing: Yungblut says that at an auction held recently in Thamesville, Ont., the audience cheered when meat buyers were outbid on a mare and her 2‘/2-month-old foal. “Now there is a feeling that the meat men are the enemies,” she says. “They have no compassion.”
The highly competitive business of horsemeat processing leaves John Ratcliffe, president of Alsask Processors in Edmonton, with no time to think about the “emotional aspects” of his $15-million-a-year enterprise. “We kill anything on four legs,” he says. Unlike Ratcliffe, horse dealer and meat buyer Danny Barkey of Stouffville, Ont., does have regrets about shipping healthy, young horses to Barton Feeders, an Owen Sound, Ont., abattoir. But he stresses that he can only buy the animals somebody wants to sell. At one recent auction, he recalls: “A lady asked if Fd bought such and such a number. When I said yes she called me a dirty, rotten SOB and gave me a swat with her purse. I asked her why the hell she sold me the horse. She said it was lame.”
Lame, sound, old, young, Thoroughbred or carthorse ... it makes no difference to Toronto Horsemeat Market owner Domenic D’Elia, a second-generation Italian who has eaten horses all his life. For the past 12 years D’Elia has been buying horsemeat from the Owen Sound plant and selling it to his customers, mostly European. Business is best when beef prices soar, but even dobbin dinner isn’t cheap. Filet mignon is up from last year’s $2.79 a pound to $3.99 and the lowly ground horse is $1.49.
The meat is tasty, though, D’Elia says. “Italians and French eat it raw with lemon.” Pointing out that it has more protein than beef, he adds, “It’s good for you”—a questionable assertion since the health of slaughter-bound horses is usually determined by no more than visual inspection. Even cancerous horses have their tumors judged malignant or benign by eye alone. Says Barkey: “One in two horses used to be rejected by some inspectors. Today they’re relaxing a bit because the meat is so expensive. They cut out some of the cancerous areas and if it looks passable it goes on. Now we’re only losing one in 10.”
So thousands and thousands of horses are killed and their carcasses shipped overseas. Animals that take three years of feeding to put on the weight that interests meat buyers are killed and dressed in just five minutes. As Danny Barkey says simply, “If a horse is fat, he’s in trouble.” ¡zb
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.