The Humane Society argued in defence of the Texas law barring the slaughter of American horses for human consumption overseas.
The decision comes in the same week that a proposed law banning the slaughter of horses made its return to Congress.
"This is the most important court action ever on the issue of horse slaughter," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society in commenting on the Texas ruling. "A federal appeals court has ruled that America's horses can no longer be slaughtered in Texas and shipped to foreign countries for food."
"When this ruling is enforced, a single plant in Illinois will stand alone in conducting this grisly business."
The criminal code of Texas has long prohibited the sale or possession of horse meat, but the law has never been enforced. In 2002, responding to citizen and local government concerns about the two foreign-owned horse slaughter plants in the state, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued a written opinion that the 1949 Texas law applies and may be enforced.
In response, the Tarrant County District Attorney attempted to enforce the law, but last year a federal district court in Texas ruled that the law was repealed by another statute and was pre-empted by federal law. The District Attorney appealed that decision last year, and was supported by the Humane Society in briefing before the Court of Appeals.
In its decision, the court flatly rejected the slaughterhouses' arguments that the ban on the sale of horsemeat did not protect horses from theft and abuse, and that regulating horse slaughter can achieve those same purposes, noting instead that "it is a matter of commonsense that ... alternatives ... do not preserve horses as well as completely prohibiting the sale and transfer of horsemeat for human consumption."
The court noted that the horse on the Texas trail is a cinematic icon, but "not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse".
The Court of Appeals also quickly brushed aside the slaughter plants' arguments that the Texas law at issue was invalid under state and federal law, noting that the Texas law "has not been repealed or pre-empted by federal law," and that "several states have already banned its commercial use for human consumption."
"The Texas law prohibiting the sale of horse meat for human food could hardly be any more explicit," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president of animal protection litigation for the Humane Society. "The court's decision means that any individual employee or corporation involved in the horse slaughter business in Texas now stares straight ahead at criminal prosecution."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100,800 American horses were slaughtered in three foreign-owned slaughter houses in 2006. Opponents of the slaughter ban argue the practice constitutes a humane way to kill old animals, but investigations by the society show cruelty and abuse throughout the process. USDA statistics show that more than 92 per cent of horses slaughtered in the US are not old and infirm but in good condition.
Legislation to ban the slaughter of American horses nationwide was introduced this week in the 110th Congress, and this court ruling will give further momentum to the federal legislative effort, the society believes.
The measure received strong bipartisan support in the 109th Congress, winning a vote of 263 to 146 in the House. It stalled in the Senate in late 2006, however, and was not brought up for a vote before Congress adjourned, even though a similar effort had been overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in 2005.
The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organisation, with nearly 10 million members and constituents. The non-profit body is based in Washington and has field representatives and offices across the country.
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