Each year, thousands of horses are shipped from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico to be processed for consumers mostly in the European Union. But the EU is having second thoughts after finding some horses are carrying toxic drug residue in their meat.
New York native Ken Terpenning fell in love with horseracing as a child. But it wasn’t until he moved to Kentucky that he got involved with the sport. He knows what makes a winning horse.
“Silky Shark was everything you want in a racehorse,” said Terpenning. “He was vibrant, fiery, a very happy horse. And then on the racetrack, he earned over $100,000 careerwise.”
Silky Shark was an athlete, but he had some medical problems. Under Terpenning’s care, the horse was given a drug called phenylbutazone, or “bute.” It’s an anti-inflammatory drug used so commonly it’s referred to as “horse aspirin.” But bute is also a human carcinogen, so dangerous authorities in the US, Canada and the European Union agree: humans should never eat a horse given bute.
In this Latitude News investigation, reporter Jack Rodolico follows the trail taken by Silky Shark from Kentucky to Canada and across the Atlantic. Read more about “The shady trade in American horsemeat” at Latitude News.
Photo courtesy Ken Terpenning
Silky Shark, a racehorse that earned over $100,000 during his racing career.
When he heard, Ken Terpenning was devastated. “I cried for probably two or three days,” Terpenning said.
Silky Shark’s story shines a light on an industry operating in the shadows. When Terpenning couldn’t afford to care for Silky Shark anymore, he sold the horse to a man he trusted. But then the horse was resold multiple times, winding up on what’s called “the slaughter pipeline.” In 2011, the year Silky Shark was slaughtered, this happened to about 140,000 American horses — not all of them were racehorses either. And it’s reasonable to assume many of them would have been given drugs at some point or other by their owners.
“Dogs, cats and horses are companion animals,” said Sinnnika Crosland. “They have a place in the human heart. They’re given drugs when they need them. People aren’t holding back.”
Who eats horse meat? Belgium, France and Italy, for starters. The European Union is the primary market for American horses slaughtered in Canada.
Dan Jorgensen, a member of the European Parliament fears Silky Shark represents a larger problem. He’s right. In 2010, a Tufts University study tracked 18 American racehorses that were all dosed with bute and sent to slaughter. Just a few months ago, Belgian inspectors found the drug in horsemeat imported from Canada.
“I think it’s quite concerning that European consumers might actually be buying and eating horsemeat that we don’t have any reason to believe is healthy,” said Jorgensen.
Things are different in the European Union. In the EU every horse has a passport, a physical document recording the animal’s drug history. But the EU has had a tough time enforcing those standards outside of its borders. Jorgensen said that has to change.
“This is just a question of the EU wanting to really do this,” Jorgensen said. “If we really want to put pressure on Mexico and Canada, and individual companies, we can.”
Pressure on Canada and Mexico will mean change in the U.S., where the drug history of horses is not tracked. That means virtually no American horses pass the EU sniff test. Plus the U.S. does not even have jurisdiction on drug residue because the horses are slaughtered beyond American borders. So should horse slaughterhouses be reopened in the U.S.?
“I don’t know. I don’t want to get into that can of worms,” said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Grandin worries if the EU cracks down, the U.S. will be left with hundreds of thousands of unwanted horses. And most Americans don’t want any horse to be slaughtered, period.
“Well, I don’t know what we ought to do, but we have to do something,” Grandin said. “If you don’t want slaughter facilities, then you need rescue facilities or you’ll have a bunch of horses starving out there.”
So the U.S. is left with a problem. Horse lovers, the people who could petition the federal government for change, are split right down the middle on how to fix that problem. Until something changes, every week, a couple thousand American horses will be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico. Horses like Silky Shark.
Ken Terpenning, back in Lexington, hopes someone in the U.S. creates a database to log every drug given to every American horse.
“I just wish it was done,” Terpenning said. “I look at his pictures on my wall every day and I just still can’t believe it.”