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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Columnists have learned that when they write about animal mistreatment of almost any kind, the piece will produce a significant response from American readers.

However, reaction to the last offering in this space -- about the widespread, profitable slaughter of horses in the United States for human consumption abroad and congressional chicanery on the matter -- was off the charts. It also provided some interesting followup material.

Most of the response (e-mails, letters, phone calls, face-to-face) was laudatory and thankful for exposure of the gruesome subject, but a few angry and oh-so-clever readers labeled it "horsesh-t" -- noting that humans routinely devour pigs and cows and ducks and chickens, so why not horses?

This, of course, is the central argument of the European businessmen who run horse-killing plants in Texas and Illinois that slaughter about 65,000 of our horses a year for export as food -- many of them thoroughbreds and trotters -- on the weak philosophical insistence that horses are merely "livestock" and subject to the same "property rights" of owners as are swine and cattle.

That specious contention overlooks a host of other factors. One of them is extremely newsworthy.

Prime consumers of horsemeat -- at $15 to $20 a pound -- are the French and Japanese. They, and other consuming nations (Italy, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.), should be aware that much of the American horseflesh they are chowing down may be carcinogenic. The reason is a powerful pain-killing drug called phenylbutazone, or "bute" as it is commonly called from racetracks to ranches.

Phenylbutazone is a known carcinogen -- an agent capable of causing cancer -- as determined by the federal government's National Toxicology Program.

Bute is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that horsemen use for pain relief and fever-reducing purposes -- treating muscular sprains and strains, muscle fatigue and overuse, tendonitis, and arthritis in their animals. Because it works directly on the inflamed tissue and allows the horse a free range of motion without pain, it is immensely popular for use by horse owners.

The drug is allowed, but most states with racetracks -- and the racetracks themselves -- have strict rules for bute usage and post-race urine or blood testing. If the state veterinarian, for instance, found below 2.5 micrograms of bute per milliliter after the race, no action would be taken against the trainer. But 2.6 micrograms (at most tracks) would get the trainer a $250 fine on first offense, plus a week's suspension on second offense, plus loss of purse on third offense. Just 5 micrograms at most tracks would get the trainer docked $500, loss of purse, and two-week's suspension on even the first offense.

Horse owners are warned by veterinarians that too much bute -- even in horses -- can cause stomach ulcers, kidney damage, edema in leg veins, anemia and all sorts of other blood disorders. Originally, the federal government allowed bute use by humans after the potent drug was concocted 55 years ago for treating gout and arthritis, but the side effects were so bad -- and also because safer, more effective medicines were discovered -- it is no longer generally prescribed for human use. The American Veterinary Medical Association warns against human use because of the danger of "severe toxic reactions."

Every once in a while, you'll read of an unthinking racetrack worker who tries it out for killing pain. The University of Florida Health Science Center has record of a 24-year-old groom who a decade ago ingested 17 grams for a toothache. He developed grand mal seizures, respiratory and kidney failure, liver damage, went into a coma, and took six weeks in intensive care and repeated blood dialysis to recover.

Here is what the Federal Register (a publication of important government rules and regulations) has to say about a recent "final ruling" by the Food and Drug Administration on this substance:

"For animals, phenylbutazone is currently approved only for oral and injectable use in dogs and horses. Use in horses is limited to use in horses not intended for food. There are currently no approved uses of phenylbutazone in food-producing animals."

Pretty specific, no? You'd think the slaughterhouse operators might be aware of that, no? You'd think the federal government would take pains to make them aware, no?

Yet when prompted to do so, the feds pass the buck.

Bonnie Mizrahi is president of the Exceller Fund, a nationwide organization of horse racing fans and horse lovers in general formed and named eight years ago in memory of a great thoroughbred who was the only horse to beat two Triple Crown winners -- yet ended up on some European's dinner plate.

Mizrahi questioned the FDA on this very point.

"The FDA does not consider that horses are 'food animals' per their e-mail communications to me," relates Mizrahi. "When questioned about the fact that horses are slaughtered and the meat exported, the FDA simply defers that question to the USDA (the Department of Agriculture). However, the USDA has no guidelines to follow for what is considered 'safe' levels of toxins in horsemeat."

And yet, the FDA is so concerned about the adverse powers of phenylbutazone that only two years ago it came out with an order prohibiting "extralabel" -- or over-dosage use -- of bute in young female dairy cattle, which also routinely are given the potent medicine by dairy farmers.. That's right, these are the same cows that produce the milk that you make your kids drink.

The FDA issued the order in May of 2003 for female dairy cattle 20 months of age or older (read that milk-producing) "based on the evidence" that too much bute in these cows "will likely cause an adverse event in humans."

The FDA added that such over-dosing or overuse "presents a risk to the public health."

Does bute last in the flesh of dead livestock?

Well, the federal Ag Department food safety inspectors following up in the last two years have reported that tissue residues in dairy cattle presented for slaughter for human food throughout the country indicate too much bute given to milk cows "will likely result in the presence, at slaughter, of residues that are toxic to humans, including being carcinogenic, at levels that have not been shown to be safe."

And yet only two weeks ago did President George W. Bush sign into law an appropriations act that contains language designed to stop the export of American horsemeat to Japan and Europe. It would do so by simply withdrawing funds to provide enough federal meat inspectors to look at this animal flesh that is likely already poisoned. A typical half-assed federal solution to a life-threatening problem.

The Exceller Fund's president informed me of another angle I hadn't considered.

In addition to bute, Mizrahi observed, horses also routinely receive Clenbuterol, Ivermectin, fluphanazine, fluoxetine, methylprednisone, dipyrone, gentamycin sulfate, ketoprofen, Regumate, Lasix, and other medicines that contain proscriptions against use in human food products.

"Just about every non-food substance that is applied, injected, or given to horses," she points out, "contains a warning on its label that the product is 'Not for use in animals intended for human consumption.'"

And why aren't the notoriously self-centered French -- who are sooooo concerned about American diplomacy and foreign policy and political correctness and their alleged cultural superiority -- fervently concerned that they may come down with cancer en masse if they keep smacking their lips over expensive American horsemeat?

Mizrahi wonders about this, too.

"The European Union has strict rules on what substances can be given to horses that will end up at slaughter," she e-mailed, "and what the withdrawal periods are for some substances, and that other substances simply cannot be used. The irony is that the European Union rules do not seem to apply to frozen imported horsemeat."

Guess who probably engineered that little loophole into the language? Here's a clue. The three American horse-killing-for-food plants mentioned above are owned by rich Belgians. The new European Union is run out of Belgium. Get the idea? Anything for a buck.

"It is curious," adds Mizrahi, "that the European consumer is either blithely ignorant of this situation, or does not care what is in horsemeat, even while they seem to care a great deal about what is in exported American beef. ... I maintain that the people plunking down $20 a pound for horse tartare should be fully informed of all the chemicals, steroids, and hormones that they are ingesting. If our horses are going to be slaughtered, then everyone needs to be honest and straightforward about what is going on."

As the Exceller Fund president points out, "horses are not raised in this country to be food animals. There is no oversight on the medications, topical treatments, steroids, hormones and other substances, both legal and illegal, given to horses on an almost daily basis."

The horse-killers remain mostly mum on the subject. They put forward former Rep. Charles Stenholm, once a powerful conservative Democrat and formerly ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee before he lost the congressional office he had held for 26 years when ungrateful Republicans gerrymandered his big west Texas district.

The crusty Stenholm wrote a "guest column" for the San Antonio Express in which he cautioned putting the three American horse-killing plants out of business will mean "one of our only meat exports to Europe would be lost" and this would eliminate "jobs for Americans."

Give me a break. When in recent years did Congress or this administration give two hoots about the American workforce?

The slaughterhouses in Texas and Illinois employ about 40 people each. The White House and Congress remain mum, and seem blissfully unconcerned, that one auto parts supplier alone (Delphi) is about to eliminate 38,000 jobs nationwide (and more than 3,500 in Lockport) before month's end -- partly because the lack of federal regulations let main client General Motors make a bone-headed decision to bet the ranch on roadhog, gas-guzzling SUVs before gasoline prices went to the far side of the moon.

Stenholm was right about one thing, though, in his column: "Its supporters claim it (the new legislative language) bans horse slaughter, a claim that is incorrect."

The law Bush signed says almost nothing about the actual slaughter of horses for food -- it just withdraws funding for inspectors under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Even then, pro-slaughter congressmen tinkered so adamantly with the language and changed the enactment dates so confusingly the new funding law won't affect the killing plants in Texas and Illinois until late February or early March. You can slit thousands and thousands of horses' inverted throats by that time. And the forced lack of inspectors is only good until next fall to begin with. How many horses does that save? My guess is the killing plants won't even shut down -- just go into "industrial hiatus" for a few months. All you guys with the stun bolts and big blades, take a long, nice vacation. Pull down some unemployment checks from the already-burdened taxpayers. We'll call you back in November. Congress, despite its proven taste for providing half-measures and hiding behind bloviation to duck issues that truly need addressing, must soon look this revolting practice squarely in the face and do something real about it. Members of Congress may be immune to shame and embarrassment, but thank God the national public is not.

An additional note: To those couple of readers -- one, a former Niagara Falls resident -- who accused me of "sophistry" (making a clever, but misleading argument), be specific. Call me all the names you want, but if you charge deception of the reading public, be specific. Don't just call me a jerk (you are probably right) or accuse of me trying to impress gullible college students as my motivation. They know more about this than you do. Cite your facts. Bring it on. If you think the majority of folks don't give a rat's patootie about killing horses for human consumption, provide some reliable survey figures.

And to those politically correct of you who devour horsemeat and boast about it as part of your culture, but should be spending that time consulting your oncologist ...

Bon appetit, you snooty bastards.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 22 2005