Political Hay

Horsing Around in Congress

If only turkeys had such friends on Capitol Hill.

By and 11.22.04

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WASHINGTON -- "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse." The next time you're tempted to say this, have a care. If some in Congress get their way, it could bring the FBI a-knocking on your door.

For some reason, in the midst of the war on terrorism and debates about the economy and Social Security, Congress is trying to criminalize horsemeat. It wants federal law enforcement -- the folks we rely on to investigate kidnappings and prevent terrorist attacks -- to stop people from buying and selling meat that comes from horses.

Low carb dieters should be particularly upset. Horsemeat has far fewer calories than beef, and it's low in fat and high in protein. If that isn't made for South Beach, what is? According to the USDA, horsemeat has "a flavor somewhat between that of beef and venison." Why would Congress want to deprive Americans of such gallopin' good steaks? Apparently, a small-but-vocal posse of horse lovers and animal rights types has been riding Congress for years to stop "the horse holocaust."

In Congress, 226 representatives and 10 senators have cosponsored the "American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act." Even the "Puppy Protection Act" only has 52 cosponsors. And no, we're not making this up.

Ironically, the "American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act" is not about preventing the slaughter of horses. It does nothing to stop horses from being killed for dog food or glue or as a good Godfather-style warning. The Act would only outlaw the killing of, or commerce in, horses for "human consumption." A better name for the bill might be the "More Horses for Glue Act."

THE BILL IS REALLY morals legislation. For Hindus, cows are sacred and not to be eaten. But do the Hindus run around trying to criminalize beef? No, at least not in America. But certain pious horse lovers will not be satisfied until the federal government criminalizes all those who don't share their values.

The legislation also tastes a lot like cultural imperialism. While the number of Americans chowing down on horse steaks is near zero, equine entrées are actually quite popular other countries, especially Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Their acceptance of culinary diversity was particularly important during the mad cow scare, when horsemeat replaced beef for some Europeans.

Historically, outside of Jewish and Muslim areas, horsemeat was common fare and was used in certain pagan religious ceremonies. Some Native Americans ate horsemeat, as shown by Lewis and Clark's record of a gift from northwestern tribes of "20 pounds of very fat dried horsemeat." The fact that today most Americans wouldn't voluntarily pick "Horse Ribs" off a menu is a bad reason to make such a choice illegal.

After all, aren't there a lot of meats that Americans shouldn't be allowed to eat? When is Congress going to make it a crime to cook a cat casserole, fondue a ferret, or wok your dog?

Let's be serious. Passing special interest legislation to sanctify the remains of Mr. Ed would set a terrible precedent. Once they start down the road of food criminalization, the only meat we can be certain Congress will protect is pork.

SOME SUPPORTERS OF THE horse bill argue that horsemeat is unsafe or that the process of converting stallion to steak is particularly inhumane. Even if true, these are not arguments for criminalization. John Baker, a law professor at Louisiana State University, recently sounded the alarm over an explosion of federal criminal laws. Congress's own research service has admitted that they don't even know how many federal crimes exist, but, according to Baker, the number is around 4,000. Most of these laws have been created in the last few decades, and many originated with this same kind of special interest lobbying and congressional grandstanding.

The most troubling thing about many of these new crimes is that they buck the traditional requirement that government prosecutors prove criminal intent (traditionally called mens rea) before they can send you to the federal pen. The Horse Act is a particularly lame example of this trend, potentially criminalizing even those who sell horses without knowing that the buyer intends to kill them for human food or buy meat without realizing that it is horse. Such sloppy legislative drafting can make well-meaning people into outlaws. This alone ought to convince people to say, "Neigh."

Whether you view horses as just really fast cows or as some kind of majestic land dolphin, a new federal crime is the last thing we need. Illinois made it legal over the summer to name pets as beneficiaries in your will, but even it said no to criminalizing horse cuisine. State Rep. Charles Morrow challenged: "If you can eat Bo Peep, Bugs Bunny, and Bambi, why can't you eat Mr. Ed?" Indeed, Americans everywhere should bridle at this attempt to restrict culinary freedom and say "whoa" to turning cultural taboos into criminal laws.

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