In the wild … 400,000 horses are feral. Photo: Glen McCurtayne
THEY may be the stuff of little girls' dreams, the heroes of tear-jerking films and the glamorous obsession of punters everywhere, but many of Australia's 1 million horses will end up in the mouths of greyhounds.
The horse meat trade is a small but steady one operating far from the public consciousness.
Just two abattoirs - one in Queensland, the other in South Australia - are licensed to slaughter horses for overseas human consumption and they export about 2 million kilograms of the flesh each year.
A single butcher in Perth, Vince Garreffa (widely known as the Prince of Flesh), sells about 500 kilograms of horse meat for local dinner tables each month, but he is not telling where those tables are until after the West Australian election next month.
He is worried he will lose his licence to sell horse meat at between $30 and $95 a kilo to about 200 restaurants nationwide and immigrant families desperate for a taste of the sweet, tender and gamey meat that was a staple of their childhood.
While the labelling scandal in Europe has widened to encompass the world's biggest food company, Nestle, and beef products found to contain horse continue to disappear from supermarket shelves, Australia's food and agriculture authorities are scrambling to reassure the public it won't happen here.
''There are no reports, intelligence or allegations of meat substitution for meat or meat products imported into Australia,'' a federal Agriculture Department spokesman said.
But the country's estimated 1.2 million horses - about 400,000 of which are feral - must go somewhere when they die.
Which is where businesses such as Les Evans's 100-year-old, family-owned knackery come in.
The Newcastle slaughterhouse, one of 33 in Australia and seven in NSW, processes cows and horses drawn from Rockhampton to Shepparton for pet food. About 90 per cent of it is destined for greyhounds and a small amount for pet stores.
Mr Evans said he would handle about 10,000 head of cattle and horses each year. A little under a third of the animals killed were horses and he and his wife, Dianne, on-sold about half of the equines they bought to rodeos, or for show jumping and as show hacks. Those that ended up in the slaughterhouse could not be saved. ''They've either got crippled or one eye, stuff like that,'' Mr Evans said. Knackeries were ''a service that needs to be provided'', but had a terrible reputation. ''Realistically, you've got to cull,'' he said. ''It's a pretty ungrateful job because people think you're nasty.''
The NSW Food Authority said most equines killed for animal food were domestic or leisure ponies and horses.
Oversight of knackeries was not as stringent as for abattoirs, but all horse meat from knackeries had to be stained with a bright blue dye to ensure it did not end up in the family meal.
''Inspections generally focus on staining requirements and traceability as well as some basic hygiene and operational requirements,'' a spokeswoman said.
''Inspection requirements at knackeries are not as intense or complex as that for abattoirs because they produce pet food and as such there is not the same requirement of food safety.''
But federal and state authorities are loath to state how many horses are ordinarily slaughtered for human and animal consumption across the country.
A federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry webpage, which has been removed since late November, put the number at between 30,000 and 40,000 a year.
But a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate suggests the figure was as high as 94,000 in 2011 alone.
Nonetheless, Australia is still a small horse meat player compared with countries such as Mexico, which as the world's largest producer churns out about 78,000 tonnes a year, according to Farming UK. Global production appears to be rising, from 600,000 tonnes 50 years ago to more than 750,000 tonnes in 2009.
Despite a local aversion to eating horse meat, even the RSPCA has no gripe with the industry as long as the animals are treated and killed humanely. ''At some point, every horse will die,'' the RSPCA chief scientist, Bidda Jones, said.
''One of the problems is oversupply. We know that there are perfectly healthy horses that are ending up at knackeries and abattoirs because there are too many horses being bred. [And] when horses end up at a knackery, we want to ensure that they are treated as humanely as possible so we have the same standards … as at abattoirs.''