An expanding European horse meat scandal has left many Americans wondering whether the same could happen here. Americans are unlikely to find a horse burger. Before celebrating, it might do some good to learn why.
In 2007, a confluence of federal and state laws came together to end horse slaughter in the U.S. Many animal welfare advocates hailed the victory, but stopping U.S. slaughter had an opposite effect than the one intended.
Unable to find a home for aged or crippled horses, ranchers faced high prices for euthanasia and disposal. Many horses were abandoned and left to starve. Investigations into horse abuse, for example, increased 60 percent in Colorado following slaughter cessation. Our research suggests that slaughter cessation caused a 36 percent drop in horse prices at a major Oklahoma auction and resulted in losses of $4 million per year in the yearling quarter horse market.
It was quickly realized that unwanted horses could be shipped to plants in Canada or Mexico. Horse slaughter didn't end, it just moved. Animal welfare advocates are rightfully concerned about transportation-related stress and injuries. Yet slaughter cessation exasperated those problems.
The severity of the issue reached such a level that Congress recently reversed its decision to defund federal horse slaughter inspection. Last week, both houses of the Legislature overwhelmingly passed bills to end the state's ban on horse slaughter. However, the practice hasn't resumed. With such political and legal uncertainties, it's hard to say when that day might come.
What does this have to do with the European scandal? Americans are unlikely to find horse meat on their plate because we no longer produce any. It's possible that mislabeled products could be imported, but about 90 percent of the beef eaten by Americans is homegrown. If mislabeled products were found here, the answer wouldn't be, as we've seen, to ban horse slaughter. However much we are culturally predisposed to abhor eating horse, the reality is that it's safe and perfectly tasty. Just ask the French.
That doesn't justify mislabeling. But if a food retailer lies, there are legal remedies. The mere knowledge of liability, not to mention lost reputation, incentivizes truth telling. More vigilance might have stopped the faux beef sellers in Europe. But no government can prevent us from all harm. Nor should we want it to. Vigilance is costly and our governments are already doing too much.
As it turns out, the scandal might have originated from an altogether different horse policy. Romania recently outlawed horse-drawn carts on major roadways. Horses became less valuable, and emaciated equine began roaming the countryside. Sound familiar? A glut of horses caused the price of horse meat to fall. Falling profitability is no excuse for dishonesty, and the Romanians deny any wrongdoing, but the Romanian policy clearly increased the incentive to cheat.
The lesson from these equine scandals isn't necessarily that the government should have been doing more. Rather, politicians should learn what every good horse intuitively knows: Look before you leap.
Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University and author of a forthcoming book “The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate.”