Saturday, March 27, 2010

Maine Farm a Half-Way House 4 Horse Slaughter

Not all the pretty horses come home
Maine farm plays role in export to Canada slaughterhouses
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / March 8, 2010

VASSALBORO, Maine - Spread over a couple of hundred acres here, a bucolic mix of pasture and woodland forms a picturesque home for a century-old family business that provides horses and saddlery to families, summer camps, and riding schools.

But proprietor Brenda Hemphill, who is called a “kill buyer’’ by critics, is also an unapologetic businesswoman who ships horses to Quebec to be slaughtered for human consumption, primarily in Europe. Hemphill said her business provides an alternative for horse owners who can no longer afford their animals’ upkeep or find them a suitable home.

“It’s common sense,’’ Hemphill explained. “People need to make money.’’

Killing horses for food, a thing of the past in the United States, has continued in the slaughterhouses of Canada as the economy has led more people to abandon their horses. Now, with new horsemeat restrictions set to take effect in Europe July 31, critics expect to see horse traffic pick up through New England - and farms like Hemphill’s - en route to the two slaughterhouses in Quebec.

“People are trying to get as many killed as possible before the mallet comes down,’’ said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “This is not going to starving people. It’s going to the plates of gourmets in the Champs Elysees.’’

The low-fat, high-protein meat, observers said, can reach prices up to $20 a pound.

The new European restrictions, intended to keep sick or drugged animals from the food chain, will require horses bound for slaughter to have detailed medical and drug records or be quarantined for six months - regulations that could severely curtail the trade to Canada. Currently, those requirements do not exist and horses that have been injected with painkillers and steroids can enter the market with little or no oversight, Dodman said.

Farms that buy horses for slaughter rarely advertise openly. Instead, most horses that are bound for the meat market are purchased at large auctions, where buyers for slaughter often outbid others who want the horses for recreation or labor, Dodman said.

Hemphill did not provide sales figures for a business she acknowledged “is a topic that no one’s comfortable with.’’ She also did not discuss the origins of the horses she sends to slaughter and conceded that she depends on the seller to be honest about an animal’s drug history.

That opening, Dodman said, is potentially harmful for people who eat meat that might come from racehorses, which are routinely medicated to enhance their competitive performance. “How can we allow this to be shipped abroad?’’ Dodman asked.

“These animals are never treated as food animals their entire lives,’’ said Nancy Perry, vice president for government affairs at the Human Society of the United States. “In the course of being used as carriage horses, or show horses, or race horses, there are drugs and steroids given to them that are prohibited in animals for use for human consumption.’

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