Their celebrated status may help explain the growing furor over requests before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to authorize the slaughtering of the animals for human consumption.
In recent weeks, the White House and lawmakers in Congress have moved to oppose horse-slaughter plants. Bills introduced in the House and Senate would ban horse slaughter in the United States while President Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget reportedly would have the same effect.
"The practice of horse slaughter for human consumption is revolting to me as a horse owner, but also as a consumer," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a co-sponsor of the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, said in a statement forwarded to the organization, Americans Against Horse Slaughter. "Horses are not raised for human consumption, and they are frequently treated with drugs and chemicals that are toxic when ingested by humans."
Others find the anti-horse slaughter movement in Washington equally repugnant. "The fact is there is no basis for them to single out one species out of all the species that we eat in this country — to pick out one and destroy the industry," Sue Wallis, a Wyoming legislator, told the Casper Star-Tribune. "It just boggles my mind."
Although there are no U.S. horse slaughter facilities operating today, USDA has confirmed it has received at least six applications, according to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Bruce Wagman, a lawyer for Front Range Equine Rescue, an advocacy group that opposes horse slaughter, told The New York Times facilities in Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Rockville and Gallatin, Mo., have sought USDA approval.
Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman with USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said Tuesday three of the six applicants are not currently working with FSIS towards a grant of inspection. USDA is not actively engaged with Oklahoma Meat Company, Tennessee-based Trail South LLC and Missouri-based Unified Equine LLC, she said. Cochran explained the applications were either incomplete or the applicant has lost contact with the agency. FSIS is reviewing applications that have been filed by Missouri-based Rains Natural Meats, Iowa-based Responsible Transportation LLC and New Mexico-based Valley Meat Company LLC.
"USDA cannot predict at this time when a grant of inspection for any of the active applications might be approved," she stated.
A. Blair Dunn, a lawyer representing Valley Meat Company in Roswell, N.M., doesn't appear to be phased by the developments in Washington.
"We're going to press on as if USDA is going to do what Congress has already told them to do," he was quoted as saying in the Casper Star-Tribune article. "Our plan is to continue to proceed to open."
Congress last year lifted a ban that prevented horse slaughter in the United States, Michelle Saghafi, another USDA spokeswoman, recently told Bloomberg in a March 1 article.
Companies that have applied for permission to slaughter horses "must still complete necessary technical requirements and FSIS must still complete its inspector training," she said in an emailed statement to the news agency, "but at that point, the department will legally have no choice but to go forward with inspections, which is why we urge Congress to reinstate the ban."
USDA won't issue a "Federal Grant of Inspection" that authorizes the sale of a product across state lines for resale unless a facility has met at least three criteria. It must develop a sanitation standard operating procedure and a hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) program. Conceived during the 1960s for astronauts, HACCP programs identify food-safety hazards and implement measures to eliminate or mitigate those risks.
Applicants also must demonstrate that a facility meets sanitary requirements such as being resistant to insects and vermin, according to a letter from FSIS' Office of Policy and Program Development.
The agency underscores it will not approve an application for grant of inspection unless it is satisfied a business will produce safe food.
"Given that the agency last conducted a horse inspection six years ago, FSIS determined that despite the congressional decision to lift the ban, the agency would require a significant amount of time to update its testing and inspection processes and methods before it is fully able to develop a future inspection regimen," Cochran, the FSIS spokeswoman, said.
Although Americans are not accustomed to eating horse, the meat is considered a delicacy in other parts of the world. Each year, more than 170,000 horses from the U.S. are killed for human consumption to meet demand in Europe and Japan, according to Equine Advocates, a non-profit equine protection organization.
The SAFE Act would prohibit export abroad of horses for human consumption.
"It is wonderful to see our government taking steps to ensure American horses are not slaughtered on our own soil for foreign demand, especially in light of the daily news from Europe about the horrors of discovering horse meat in their food supply from co-mingling with beef in tainted food products," Nancy Perry, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said in a statement.
The International Equine Business Association has dismissed concerns that slaughtered horses would jeopardize the safety of human food.
The horse processing plants "will ensure that no drug residue can ever enter the human food chain, and that every plant has installed humane handling systems and procedures that go above and beyond the U.S. Humane Methods of Slaughter law," the association declares on its website.