HARRISBURG, Pa. - Its livestock markets decimated by mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, Europe is turning to North America for a substitute for beef and lamb, fueling a sudden demand for a little-known U.S. export: horse meat.
That demand has propelled prices at Pennsylvania's largest livestock auction house from $500 to as much as $800 per horse in recent weeks, daunting bidders who try to buy horses to rescue them.
While eating horse meat may be anathema to people in this country, the meat is regularly served in French and Belgian bistros as cheval, a low-fat, high-protein alternative to beef. Lean and similar in texture to beef, the meat has an underlying sweetness of taste that is balanced by cooks with such seasonings as garlic or herbs.
About 200 horses from around the region are sold each week at New Holland Sales & Stables in Lancaster County, where buyers estimate that 30 percent to 40 percent of the horses are now bought for slaughter.
Horse-welfare groups in Pennsylvania, which rescue a handful of horses every week in New Holland, say they can no longer compete with the slaughterhouse buyers.
"It's costing a lot more to save a horse," said Kelly Young, who with her husband, Tracy, operates Lost and Found Horse Rescue in York. "We can't buy a trailerload of three or four horses anymore, only one or two."
Young paid $550 recently to save a mare and got a donkey - removed from the auction by a humane society official because of its poor health - for free. "I bid on three others, but they were too high, going for about $750," she said.
Tens of thousands of horses are slaughtered in the United States each year, their meat bound for butcher shops and restaurants abroad, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pennsylvania does not keep statistics on the number of horses sold for slaughter. Officials at the New Holland facility, the largest horse auction east of the Mississippi River, did not return telephone calls.
As the animal health crisis - and fears of tainted meat - has grown in Europe in recent months, industry experts say, the price of horse meat here has soared by as much as 30 percent. And more horses than ever are heading for slaughterhouses here and in Canada.
Agriculture Department figures show that 6,961 horses were slaughtered in three U.S. plants in March, compared with 5,649 in March 2000. In the first three months of this year, as Europe struggled with foot-and-mouth disease on the heels of the mad-cow scare, the number of horses killed here has inched upward.
The new demand has been a boon for slaughterhouse owners, the buyers who work for them, and individuals trying to unload unwanted horses.
In Texas, home to two slaughterhouses, 11,000 horses were killed in the first quarter of this year, compared with 8,600 in the last quarter of 2000, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Export horse-meat prices, which hovered at 45 to 50 cents a pound for the last two years, had jumped to 75 cents to 80 cents a pound last week.
Rise in horse thefts
The new demand could be spurring an increase in horse thefts as well, although it is too early to tell for sure, said Rob Hosford of the Texas cattle association. The 125-year-old group, which operates the state's horse inspection program, reported that horse thefts rose by more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2000.
"There are some substantial dollars in the real market and virtually nothing to lose in the black market," Hosford said. "That's fast cash."
He said that a horse could be stolen, slaughtered, packaged, shipped to Europe, and served before a ranch owner realized that the animal was missing.
With no domestic market, horse slaughterhouses in the United States all but disappeared in the last decade. Once there were as many as 15 plants, killing 350,000 horses a year, mostly for consumption abroad. Although there was never a federal law banning horse slaughter or the sale of horse meat, public sentiment against the killing of horses helped drive the industry under, say horse welfare advocates.
'Supplies are limited'
"There is demand for horse meat; [importers] are showing more interest, but supplies are limited," said Bouvry, who runs three slaughterhouses in Calgary and Quebec.
He refused to disclose the exact number of horses killed because he said he did not want people to envision a "pile of bodies." He said his wholesale prices are up about 20 percent, from 50 cents a pound in August to 60 cents today.
Cheval is popular among French and Belgian working-class residents in urban areas who shop in butchers' shops adorned with gilded horsehead advertising signs. Horse meat also is popular in parts of Japan and China.
Horse-welfare advocates here fear the rising demand and higher prices are opening up a new market for riding horses to be sold for slaughter. Buyers have traditionally relied heavily on aged or infirm horses, abandoned camp horses or the last-place-finishers at racetracks.
"When you get up in the $1,000 market, that is a new strata of horses - the entry-level or children's horses - that's the upscale market," said Cathleen Boyle, president of the California Horse Council, which lobbied successfully 1998 for a law banning all slaughter or horse sales for slaughter in her state.
"They're turning to these markets because there are no more horses left, and now they can afford it," she said