Horse Slaughter Continues in U.S., Despite Recent Law

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
February 8, 2006
Three foreign-owned processing plants will be allowed to continue
slaughtering horses for meat, the U.S Department of Agriculture
(USDA) announced yesterday.

The slaughterhouses—two in Texas and one in Illinois—kill a combined total of 70,000 to 90,000 horses each year and sell the meat overseas as a delicacy and in the U.S. as food for zoo animals.

The USDA's decision has angered politicians and animal-welfare activists, who say it runs counter to a measure signed into U.S. law last November.

The law removes funding for federal inspections at horse-processing plants beginning next month. It was supposed to force slaughterhouses to shut down, since federal regulations require the inspections.

Instead the USDA is allowing the slaughterhouses to pay the agency's estimated U.S. $350,000 annual horse-plant inspection costs under a program established for processing exotic meats, like deer, bison, and rabbit.

The agency says that the funding cuts do not remove its responsibility for inspecting meat processed at officially recognized facilities to ensure public health.

Horse Sense

Horse-slaughter opponents say the decision undermines a major victory in protecting the animals from unnecessary and inhumane deaths.

"It's disturbing that an agency like USDA feels it is appropriate to obstruct a law passed by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in Congress when their sole mission is to implement the law," said Congressperson John Sweeney, a Republican who represents New York State.

Horses are supposed to be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter, usually by a stun gun. But sometimes, welfare workers say, it takes several attempts if the horse panics and tries to flee.

Consequently, animal advocates assert, horses are improperly stunned, even with repeated blows, and are still conscious when their throats are slit.

What's more, at least one of the plants—the Dallas Crown facility in Kaufman, Texas—has been declared a nuisance because the city's sewer system was not designed to handle the volume of waste materials from the plant.

When stoppages have occurred over the years, blood from the plant has backed up into area residents' bathtubs.

Charlie Stenholm, a former U.S. congressperson, is now a spokesperson for the processing plants. He says the plants provide a safe, convenient way to dispose of unwanted horses.

"It's a well-regulated industry that abides by humane euthanasia practices," he said.

Stenholm argues that horse owners should have the right to decide whether or not to send their unwanted animals to slaughter.

The industry, he says, allows owners to retain some value. Processing plants pay, on average, U.S. $400 per horse.

Homes for Horses

Meanwhile, Congress is considering another bill related to the issue.

The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, introduced last year, would permanently ban the sale and transport of horses to slaughter.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is actively pursuing defeat of the legislation.

"For us, it's strictly an animal-welfare issue," said Mark Lutschaunig of the AVMA's government-relations division.

Without meat processing as an option, many of the unwanted horses will be donated to rescue and retirement facilities, he says, which are not regulated by any governmental body.

Standards of care and financial support totalling 127 million U.S. dollars would be needed, he said, to ensure proper care for the horses affected by the bill.

Jerry Finch of Habitat for Horses, an equine-rescue facility in Hitchcock, Texas, said there really aren't enough unwanted horses to make this an issue.

Less than one percent of the total U.S. horse population is sent to processing plants each year, and new owners could easily be found for those animals.

Habitat's 27-acre (11-hectare) ranch and 160 foster homes in three U.S. states adopt about 300 horses each year.

"We're very successful in finding homes for horses," he said.

Finch is hopeful an outright ban on horse slaughter will be passed, adding that 2006 is the fourth year in which bills regarding this issue have been considered by U.S. lawmakers.

"We're tired of fighting, but we're not quitting," Finch said. "It's not over by any means."

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