FORT WORTH -- More than 100,000 U.S. horses a year are still being turned into chops and steaks for Europeans and Asians since three slaughter plants in Texas and Illinois were closed in 2007.
But the work is now done by Mexicans and Canadians, a government study has found.
"From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 percent to Canada and 660 percent to Mexico," the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.
"Nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010 -- nearly 138,000 -- as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased," said the GAO's study on the "unintended consequences" of stopping domestic horse slaughter, released in June.
Lost are direct exports to Europe totaling 17,000 metric tons of horse meat valued at $65 million in 2006, when the three U.S. plants operated, including Beltex/Frontier Meats in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Texas, both owned by Belgian investors.
U.S. zoos and circuses, which earlier could obtain horse meat domestically, now buy imported horse meat to feed their big cats, the GAO said. Pet food manufacturers are allowed to process meat from domestic horse corpses, it said.
Dallas Crown and Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill., have both closed, but Beltex kept operating after 2007, processing wild boar and ostrich as well as ritually slaughtering cattle for the kosher market.
After congressional opponents stopped funding the federal inspection of horse meat in 2006, the plants paid for their own inspections until Texas and Illinois stopped the slaughter of horses for human consumption in 2007.
The welfare of many horses has suffered, the study said.
Horses must now travel farther, sometimes in trailers built for smaller animals and "without adequate rest, food, and water."
Other unintended consequences include an 8 percent to 21 percent drop in the market for lower to medium-priced horses, while reports of horse neglect and abandonment have risen since 2007.
The GAO study said Congress could reconsider restrictions on the use of federal funds to inspect horses for slaughter or permanently ban it.
Horse meat is considered an appropriate part of human diets in many countries and was consumed in the United States as recently as the mid-1940s, the GAO said.
But the 68-page study noted how the now-contentious equine slaughter issue has divided Americans.
Many animal-rights groups and horse enthusiasts view horses as a companion animal or pet.
Other Americans, it said, view the horse as livestock, citing economic benefits to commercial slaughter.