By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
“It’s ultimately a value question on how we value horses in the United States,”
Now that Congress has lifted the ban on slaughtering horses, companies plan to open horse-slaughter plants in several states, but animal rights activists say they face a rough ride.
Businesses have filed applications in New Mexico and Missouri and plan to open other facilities in Wyoming and Oklahoma. Horse-slaughter advocates want to produce jobs and lean meat that some consider a healthy delicacy for dinner tables in the USA and abroad. Animal rights groups promise legal obstacles and public protest to using as food animals that helped settle the West.
“It’s very high in protein, very low in fat,” says rancher and Wyoming state Rep. Sue Wallis, a Republican, who wants to run horse-slaughter operations in Missouri and Oklahoma, instead of shipping U.S. horses to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered. There are markets in dozens of countries and horse meat is 40% cheaper than beef, so demand is rising as Europe’s economy worsens, Wallis says.
Before the ban, horse meat was not popular in the USA, but it could be found in some upscale restaurants. Wallis says her primary customers will be abroad, but “for the U.S. domestic market, if we have a customer that wants the meat prepared case-ready or restaurant-ready, we would be ready to do that.”
Opponents say slaughtering horses is akin to slaughtering a pet and is morally repugnant.
“It’s ultimately a value question on how we value horses in the United States,” says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. “Last thing we’re going to do is set up a commercial operation and sell the meat of dogs and cats in other countries. It’s unthinkable.”
He says his group will sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture under environmental impact regulations. He cites waste management concerns and says horse meat that has been treated with pharmaceuticals is unhealthy to consume.
The USDA has received one application for a slaughterhouse in New Mexico and three inquiries from cattle slaughterhouses elsewhere, but none has been approved because inspection regulations have not been updated to reflect industry changes since the ban took effect in 2006.
Horses are iconic animals that affluent Americans see as companions, says Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist and consultant to the livestock industry. In a poor country such as Mexico, “they look at a horse as a source of protein,” she says.
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006 when it eliminated funding for horse meat inspectors. Without inspections, slaughtering plants closed, and the export of horses for slaughter in Mexico and Canada increased.
Lawmakers restored funding for inspectors in November after a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, confirmed what some in the livestock industry say: The ban, together with a poor economy and increases in feed costs, caused the price for the cheapest live horses at auction to drop from several hundred dollars to less than $100 and contributed to a rise in neglect, abuse and abandonment. Instead of selling unwanted horses for several hundred dollars at auction, many owners had to pay for euthanasia and disposal, which can cost several hundred dollars, the report said.
Nearly all of 17 state veterinarians questioned by the GAO reported such a trend. “Without exception, these officials reported that horse welfare had generally declined” since the ban, the report said.
Pacelle disputes the GAO’s conclusion that the ban contributed to abuse, neglect and abandonment. The number of U.S. horses slaughtered remained constant around 140,000 before and after the ban, whether they were killed domestically or in other countries, he says. He agrees with another finding of the report — that horses bound for slaughter traveled greater distances to Canada and Mexico and their suffering increased.
The solution, he says, is not to lift the ban on slaughtering horses but to ban the export for slaughter. Pending legislation would do that, but similar bills have failed to pass.
Grandin says banning the export of horses for slaughter would make matters worse for horses, not better, because unwanted horses would be labeled for breeding or riding and go into an underground market in Mexico, where “there’s no supervision at all.” She advocates humane slaughter facilities and independent video monitoring to avert inhumane treatment, such as using more than one blow to kill a horse.
Cynthia MacPherson, a Missouri lawyer and horse lover who joined with activists recently to block a slaughter operation proposed for the town of Mountain Grove, predicts a bleak future for the industry in the USA.
She says, “People are going to be passionate and going to put their heart and soul into trying to stop this.”
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