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Killing floor at heart of horse meat debate

ROSWELL – Rick De Los Santos was standing on a steel platform over a narrow chute holding a big pneumatic stun gun. He explained how the gun will shoot a retractable 8-inch-long bolt through the forehead of a horse and into its brain, sending the limp body of the 1,100-pound animal rolling down a short ramp and onto a kill floor.

After a federal inspector checks the horse’s eyes for a blink reflex – a safeguard to confirm the horse is unconscious – the horse will be hoisted up by a hind leg and, once it is dangling, someone will plunge a knife into its throat and bleed it out before the carcass begins to make its way through butcher stations.

“That,” De Los Santos said, gesturing to this small corner of the slaughterhouse he owns, “is where all the whole controversy is at. Once they get past this gate, they’re food.”

The conflict surrounding plans to open the nation’s only equine slaughterhouse – right here in New Mexico -to butcher horse meat for human consumption has layer upon layer of disagreement.

Are horses livestock or companion animals? Is it morally right or wrong to eat them? Is there any better alternative to slaughter when drought, recession and overbreeding fill the auction yards? Is it better to slaughter horses in the United States than ship them hundreds of miles farther into Mexico? But at the core of a debate that has become political, personal and fierce, is whether sending an intelligent, intuitive, skittish animal like a horse into a commercial slaughter process is humane.

De Los Santos, the 53-year-old at the center of the horse slaughter storm, is a meat man. He and his wife, Sarah, are from Hereford, Texas. They met in elementary school and married when she was 15 and he was 17.

He has had three jobs in his life, all at packing plants. When he sees a cow, a pig or a horse in a truck backing up to the pens outside a packing plant, he only sees meat.

De Los Santos bought the small Roswell plant in 1990 and made a business of slaughtering dairy cows that were no longer productive or were too sick or weak to stand. When those so-called “downer cows” were banned from the food supply in 2009, the business started to go downhill and he and his wife looked for a way to keep the business alive.

“We didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘We want to kill horses,’ ” he told me.

Horse meat, while reviled by most Americans, is a premium product abroad and sells for a pricey $20 a pound.

De Los Santos and his wife decided to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to resume funding equine slaughter inspections, a decision that at least in theory opened the doors for the return of horse meat production in this country after a five-year hiatus.

They renovated their Roswell plant to conform to the different regulations for horse slaughter and have been waiting for more than a year now for the approval from the USDA that would allow them to open.

Meanwhile, news of their intentions traveled around the country and opposition mounted, mostly among politicians and animal defenders.

There’s something about horses that brings out letters like this: “Dear Rick De Los Santos, I hope you and your staff burn in hell, you sick piece of (expletive). You don’t deserve to live on this earth. Go hang yourself.”

De Los Santos said he never expected the furor.

“Livestock is livestock,” is his view. “The kids in 4-H raise rabbits and chickens and they get attached to them, but at the end of the day they know those animals are going to slaughter. It’s the same with horses. They’re not family members – they’re livestock.”

While death threats come in and are handed over to the FBI for investigation, De Los Santos bides his time reading the dog-eared Bible that sits on his desk, power washing his plant to make sure it’s ready when the time comes to open and giving tours of the place to interested news reporters.

He said he figures the more that people learn about the equine slaughter process the less they’ll hate him.

Before I went down to take a look, I thought it would be useful to know what Temple Grandin, the world-renowned expert on slaughterhouse best practices, thought about the issue.

When the American Veterinary Medical Association asked her to weigh in on the controversy surrounding horse slaughter, she said, “It is possible to make horse slaughter humane.”

She recommended a non-slip floor in stun boxes and high, solid sides to block an incoming horse’s view of the slaughter floor. And she recommended a quick hit with the bolt gun before the horse has a chance to get upset.

De Los Santos had already built the non-slip floor and high sides into his stun box, and he said once his workers are trained he expects the horse will be shot with the bolt within a few seconds of entering the box.

Often, he said, the stun bolt kills the horse, although the USDA recognizes the point at which a horse is slaughtered as when it is stabbed in the throat and bled out.

When he walked me through the process, explaining how the head would first be cut off, followed by the front legs, De Los Santos passed gigantic pneumatic loppers capable of cutting through a horse leg as well as oversized saws and vats for discarded innards. Despite talk of best practices and humane treatment, there’s no disguising a slaughterhouse as something other than a killing place.

Once a horse has been separated from its head and legs and hide and gutted, it is sawed in two, power washed and then quartered. Some meat buyers prefer to buy the quarters, but most of the meat leaving Valley Meat Co. will go out vacuum-packed after being deboned and cut by hand in a butchering room.

A horse comes to slaughter by way of a so-called “killer-buyer” through an auction barn. It could be a mare who is no longer fertile, a misbehaving gelding or a horse that an owner can no longer afford to keep – as long as the animal is healthy enough to pass inspection for slaughter for human consumption. Many thousands of those horses are currently purchased in the U.S. and shipped to Mexico for slaughter.

De Los Santos said the company that will supply horses to his plant – as many as 100 a day – plans to fatten the animals at a feedlot in Texas before delivery.

The same company that delivers the live horses to the plant will load up the equine steaks, briskets and other cuts and deliver them to companies in Mexico and Canada, which will export them abroad, De Los Santos said.

If the plant gets permission to operate as an equine slaughterhouse, you can imagine throngs of protesters on the road outside the plant and even more phone messages with nasty words and death threats in the mailbox.

I wondered how many times Rick De Los Santos was called a killer when he was putting a steel bolt through the heads of 100 or so cows a day and carving them up for steaks.

Not once, he told me.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.