The legality of eating horse meat in the United States is a complex issue that depends on both federal and state laws. At the federal level, there are no laws prohibiting the slaughter, sale or consumption of horse meat. However, Congress has enacted budgetary measures that effectively prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the U.S. At the state level, a number of states have laws specifically banning the sale and consumption of horse meat or the import of horses for slaughter. Other states have no laws regarding horse meat consumption. So while it is not generally illegal to consume horse meat that has been imported from other countries, the sale of horse meat or the slaughter of horses for human consumption within the U.S. is effectively prohibited.
Is There A Federal Ban on Horse Meat?
There is no outright federal ban on the consumption of horse meat in the United States. The slaughter and preparation of horse meat for human consumption was effectively banned in the U.S. through an amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill in 2005. This amendment, known as the “Horse Protection Act,” cut funding for the required USDA inspection of horses destined for slaughter for human consumption. Without USDA inspection, it is illegal to slaughter horses and sell their meat for human consumption. This appropriations amendment has been renewed every year since 2005, but it does not make it illegal to consume horse meat that has been imported from other countries where horse slaughter is allowed.
Key Facts on Federal Horse Meat Regulations:
- There is no federal law specifically prohibiting the consumption of horse meat.
- Slaughtering horses for human consumption was banned in the U.S. through a budgetary amendment, not through legislation.
- It is illegal to slaughter horses in the U.S. without USDA inspection, effectively banning domestic horse slaughter.
- The budgetary amendment does not prohibit the consumption of imported horse meat from other countries.
So while effectively banning domestic slaughter, the federal government has not enacted an outright ban on eating horse meat from other sources. However, this could potentially change through future legislation specifically prohibiting horse meat consumption.
State Laws on Horse Meat Consumption
While federal law does not specifically prohibit horse meat consumption, several U.S. states do have laws banning the sale and consumption of horse meat:
States that Ban Horse Meat Consumption
|Details of State Ban
|Prohibits the possession, sale, or transfer of horse meat intended for human consumption.
|Bans the sale and transfer of horseflesh for human consumption.
|Prohibits the possession, sale, and transfer of horse meat for human consumption.
|Makes it illegal to possess, sell, offer for sale, or transfer horse meat for human consumption.
|Prohibits the slaughter of horses and other equines for human consumption.
|Outlaws the sale of horse meat for human consumption.
|Bans the sale or possession of horse meat if there is intent to use for human consumption.
|Prohibits the slaughter of horses in the state for export for human consumption.
|Bans the sale of horse meat for human consumption.
In these states, it is illegal for horse slaughter facilities to produce horse meat for human consumption. It is also illegal for retailers like grocery stores, restaurants, butcher shops to sell horse meat to customers. Consumers in these states face penalties for knowingly purchasing or consuming horse meat from in-state providers. However, it is not illegal for end-consumers to consume imported horse meat purchased from out-of-state or international sellers.
Some states, like Oklahoma and New Jersey, have laws specifically banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption. But they do not prohibit the sale or consumption of horse meat that has been imported from international sources where horse slaughter is allowed.
A few other states have laws banning the import of horses into the state for the purpose of slaughter for human food, including Arkansas, North Carolina, and Ohio. But these states do not prohibit the possession, sale or consumption of horse meat outright.
States with No Laws on Horse Meat Consumption
The majority of U.S. states currently have no laws prohibiting the slaughter, sale or consumption of horse meat:
- New Hampshire
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
In these states, there are no laws prohibiting the slaughter and processing of horses for meat for human consumption. Retail sale of horse meat would be legal, as would possession and consumption of horse meat by consumers. However, the effective federal ban on domestic horse slaughter applies. So while horse meat consumption is not prohibited, the production and sale of domestically-sourced horse meat remains illegal throughout the U.S.
Enforcement of Horse Meat Regulations
The enforcement of state laws banning horse meat varies across the country. In states like California and New Jersey, possession or sale of horse meat for human consumption can result in fines of $1,000 – $10,000 and possible jail time for repeat offenders. But enforcement is not consistent, and there are documented cases of the possession and sale of horse meat.
However, federal laws banning domestic horse slaughter for meat are strictly enforced by the USDA. Currently, there are no horse slaughter facilities operating in the U.S. The last three facilities, two in Texas and one in Illinois, closed in 2007 after the Horse Protection Act cut off funding for USDA inspection services required for slaughterhouses to operate. There have been a few attempts by businesses to open horse slaughter plants in recent years, but they have been blocked by federal regulators.
Key Facts on Enforcement:
- State bans on horse meat possession, sale and consumption are inconsistently enforced.
- Federal laws prohibiting domestic horse slaughter are strictly enforced – there are currently no horse slaughterhouses operating in the U.S.
- Businesses attempting to open horse slaughter facilities have been denied required licenses and permits at the federal level.
- Imported horse meat enters the U.S. legally but is not closely regulated.
The import of horse meat from other countries where slaughter is legal is allowed under federal law. USDA regulations require that imported meat from all animals, including horses, meet safety standards. But there are currently no requirements for the labeling or tracking the origin of imported horse meat. Consumption of imported horse meat, while taboo, appears to occur on a small scale in the United States.
Horse Meat Production in Other Countries
The U.S. is in the minority globally when it comes to restrictions on horse meat. Horse meat production and consumption occurs legally throughout North and South America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan. Some of the highest horse meat-consuming countries include:
|Horse Meat Consumed Per Capita (lb)
Canada and Mexico both export significant amounts of horse meat to Europe and Asia. Although horse slaughter was banned in the U.S., neighboring Canada and Mexico saw an increase in horse slaughter activity after the last domestic plants closed in 2007. It is estimated that tens of thousands of American horses are transported across borders to slaughter facilities in Canada and Mexico every year.
The top source countries for horse meat imported into the European Union are:
The U.S. ban on horse slaughter effectively moved the industry across borders to Canada and Mexico. So while horse meat can’t be produced domestically, the consumption of horse meat from other countries is not illegal under federal law.
Is Horse Meat Safe for Human Consumption?
The safety of consuming horse meat is disputed. Supporters argue it is a rich source of protein, iron and vitamins. Opponents cite concerns about horses not being bred or regulated for human consumption.
Potential Benefits of Horse Meat:
- High in protein – horse meat contains around 20% protein by volume, on par with beef, pork and lamb.
- Rich in iron and vitamins – horse meat contains high levels of iron, zinc, Vitamin B6 and B12.
- Low in fat – horse meat is leaner than comparable cuts of beef or pork.
- High nutritional value – pound for pound, horse meat has more essential nutrients than other red meats.
Potential Risks of Horse Meat Consumption:
- Phenylbutazone (bute) – horses in the U.S. are often treated with this anti-inflammatory that can be toxic to humans.
- No federal safety standards – horses are not bred or reared for meat under USDA supervision like other livestock.
- No tracking or labeling – there are currently no requirements to track or label the origin of imported horse meat.
- Ethical concerns – many people oppose eating horse meat due to equines’ role as companions and in work/sport.
Without a system to safely raise and slaughter horses, some say horse meat is riskier than beef, pork and lamb in the U.S. food supply. The unknown provenance and handling of horses before slaughter raises the risk of contamination as well. More studies are needed to provide conclusive evidence on the health impacts, positive or negative, of consuming horse meat.
Is Eating Horse Meat Socially Acceptable in the U.S.?
While legal in most of the country, eating horse meat remains highly taboo in American culture. A 2012 poll by Oklahoma State University found that only 20% of respondents supported serving horse meat in U.S. restaurants. A full 67% said they strongly opposed horse meat on menus. However, 80% responded horse meat should be legal for those who want to eat it.
The biggest factors in Americans’ aversion to eating horse meat appear to be:
- Cultural tradition – horses have a noble image and close relationship with humans in the U.S.
- Pets – horses are seen as companion animals, like cats and dogs that are not eaten.
- Sport & work – horses are partners in leisure, sport, and farm work in the U.S.
- Misleading marketing – some horse meat has been passed off dishonestly as beef.
Horse meat is also not included in the American cuisine. Dishes long centered around more traditional farm animals like cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep. The taste and texture of horse meat is reminiscent of beef, but more pungent in flavor. While embraced as a delicacy in some regions globally, horse meat has yet to find a market or place at the American table.
While effectively banned for domestic commercial purposes, there are no federal laws prohibiting the consumption of horse meat that has been imported into the United States from other countries. A few states, like California and New Jersey, do have restrictions on the possession, sale and consumption of horse meat. But the majority of states have no laws regarding the private consumption of horse meat from animals slaughtered internationally.
However, the foreign origins, handling, and slaughter conditions of imported horse meat sold in America can be difficult to verify. USDA regulations do not currently require tracking or labeling horse meat’s source country, as is mandatory for other meats like beef and pork. With horses not bred or reared specifically for food in the U.S., horse meat falls into a regulatory gray area concerning safety standards and oversight.
Ultimately, while horse meat consumption is legal on the federal level, it faces massive cultural taboos and opposition from the American public. Horses hold a special place in society, sport, and labor in the U.S that makes the idea of eating their meat unpalatable to most Americans. So even though the practice is generally legal, eating horse meat appears likely to remain on the fringe of acceptability and largely out of the American diet.