Source: By Josh Long as published at Food Product Design
“During the first part of their lives, nobody has any thought these horses are going to be steak,”
SANTA FE, N.M.—A letter from Zachary Shandler, a New Mexico Assistant Attorney General, highlights another challenge Valley Meat Co. faces in its controversial quest to lawfully slaughter horses.
It must ensure that horses destined for the slaughterhouse have not been treated with drugs that are considered harmful to human health and deemed “adulterated” in violation of federal and state laws. If horse meat was found to be adulterated, the New Mexico Food Act would prevent the meat from being manufactured, sold or delivered, Shandler wrote in a June 10 letter to Richard Martinez, a New Mexico state senator.
The New Mexico Food Act classifies a food as adulterated “if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health”. Although state law doesn’t define what constitutes a “poisonous or deleterious substance,” Shandler cited studies that show phenylbutazone (PBZ)—an anti-inflammatory drug that has been shown to have been administered to race horses who were later slaughtered—meets that definition.
“Accordingly, horse meat originating from U.S. horses that have been treated with PBZ and other deleterious substances would be deemed ‘adulterated’,” Shandler said.
Such an act would constitute a violation of the New Mexico Food Act, possibly resulting in a criminal misdemeanor charge, fines and seizure of the product, he noted.
The opinion by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King reflected “more of a political statement about his personal beliefs than a legal opinion,” said A. Blair Dunn, a lawyer representing Valley Meat Co., whose application to slaughter horses in Roswell, N.M. is pending before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“He simply restated the obvious that if a product contains poison or deleterious substances that are injurious to human health that it is adulterated and can’t be sold,” Dunn told Food Product Design in an emailed statement.
Phil Sisneros, the AG’s communications director, said the opinion was not a matter of just stating the obvious.
“We don’t believe that very many New Mexicans knew we even had an adulterated food act and that horse meat would come under that,” he said in a phone interview.
Although the AG has the authority to enforce the New Mexico Food Act and other laws that might affect horse meat, Sisneros indicated the New Mexico Environment Department would take the lead on an enforcement action. He said the AG has let the agency know it will help them in such an action. A spokesman for the state Environment Department did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment on its role in the matter.
The AG’s letter “infers that all horses may contain [an adulterated] substance because they may have been administered painkillers, antibiotics or vaccines in the course of their lives. But ultimately this is all the stuff that falls under the regulatory authority of USDA to inspect for and keep out of the food chain,” said Dunn, Valley Meat Co.’s lawyer.
The problem is that it’s impossible to confirm what drugs horses have been administered during their early years because, unlike livestock, the animals weren’t raised with the purpose of being slaughtered to feed humans, said Bruce Wagman, a lawyer representing the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the animal rights group, and Front Range Equine Rescue, a Larkspur, Colo.-based non-profit organization seeking to defend horses from neglect and abuse.
“During the first part of their lives, nobody has any thought these horses are going to be steak,” said Wagman, a San Francisco-based partner with the law firm Schiff Hardin LLP.
HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue have stated their intent to file lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act if USDA grants approval to Valley Meat Co. or other businesses to slaughter horses.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been reviewing applications that have been filed by Valley Meat Co., Missouri-based Rains Natural Meats and Iowa-based Responsible Transportation LLC. According to a voicemail at Rains Natural Meats, the company is currently closed for business; Responsible Transportation, which states on its website that it will provide “a humane alternative” to the problem of unwanted horses, didn’t respond Thursday to a request for comment on the status of its application.
Documents that Front Range Equine Rescue and HSUS submitted to FSIS and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) list 50 drugs that are administered to horses and expressly prohibited by the Code of Federal Regulations from entering the human food supply, Wagman said. The substances are commonly given to horses that are later slaughtered, according to the list that the agencies received.
Some of those drugs include Ceftiofur Sodium (for treatment of respiratory infections in horses), Deslorelin (used to induce ovulation in ovulating mares) and Diclofenac Sodium (administered to treat arthritis in humans and horses). With respect to these drugs, the regulations explicitly state, “Do not use for horses intended for human consumption.”
The letter from King’s office makes its position known that horse meat would be considered “adulterated” in violation of state law if it derived from horses that had been treated with the drugs listed above.
But Wagman said other drugs administered to horses also would be jeopardize food safety. In total, the documents submitted to the federal agencies listed 115 drugs and categories of drugs that have been approved for use in horses and have been known to cause problems for humans, he said. For instance, the list mentions Dimetridazole (generic), which reportedly has been withdrawn from Europe due to the hazards of gastrointestinal problems and potential for cancer.
Peggy Larson, a practitioner of veterinary medicine for more than 45 years and former veterinary medical officer for USDA, said in an affidavit filed with the agencies that many of the drugs on the list are commonly administered to horses.
“Based on longstanding medical and scientific principles, it is impossible to declare horse meat safe for human consumption when the horses who are slaughtered for that meat have been exposed to an unidentified (and unidentifiable) number of drugs, treatments and substances, in unknown (and unknowable) quantities, at various times during their life,” she stated.
Dunn said the New Mexico AG’s opinion doesn’t impact Valley Meat Co. because the company has an approved program to test drugs.
“Drug residue testing is not a new program and it is certainly not unique to horses. There is nothing that is administered to horses that is not detectable by the tests utilized by Valley and other processing facilities,” he said in the emailed statement.
Wagman countered that FSIS doesn’t have a drug testing program today for horses. More importantly, he contends it makes no difference whether Valley Meat Co. can test horses for drug residues.
“It doesn’t matter if there is any residue in the horse. Once they get that drug like PBZ it can’t be used for horse meat,” he said.
Cathy Cochran, a spokeswoman for FSIS, said the agency’s Office of Public Health Science will implement a protocol under its National Residue Program if it “grants inspection for a plant that slaughters horses.”
“More information on FSIS’ sampling methods would be made available in the FSIS Chemistry Laboratory Guidebook prior to any grant of inspection for equine slaughter being issued,” she said in an emailed statement.
Under FSIS’ current program for meat, poultry and egg products, the agency tests for chemicals such as antibiotics, sulfonamides, and other drugs, pesticides and environmental chemicals. According to a July 2012 document on the program, “A violation occurs when an FSIS laboratory detects a chemical compound level in excess of an established tolerance or action level.”
But FSIS might be deprived of the resources to administer such a program for horses. The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to eliminate funds for inspection of horse slaughter facilities. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat.
“Approval by the Appropriations Committee is the first important step in ending this inhumane practice once and for all. Today’s approval also sends a strong signal to businesses looking to make a profit off the slaughter and sale of these iconic creatures,” Moran said in a statement Thursday. “More than 80 percent of the American people oppose the practice of horse slaughter – our laws need to sync with our values.”
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