August 10, 2007

by John Holland

Cavel International and its Belgium parent company Velda are nothing if not incredibly resourceful. Only weeks after being told to close its Dekalb Illinois horse slaughter plant under a new Illinois law banning horse slaughter for human consumption, and after being handed a stinging defeat in their initial challenge to law, the Cavel International plant has pulled off a brazen coup.

On July 18, Cavel attorneys convinced a three-judge panel of Chicago's Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that if Cavel was not allowed to reopen its Dekalb plant during the appeal against the new Illinois law, the firm's business would be ruined.

The court issued an injunction allowing Cavel to reopen on the basis of potentially "irreparable harm".

Cavel and Velda did this while the final touches were being put on a deal to use two new plants in Canada - plants the Canadian government helped Natural Valley Farms to build near Wolseley.

It was the crowning achievement of a long record of manoeuvring around the governments of both countries, the state of Illinois, the town of Dekalb and a gaggle of round-heeled government agencies. It is a record not easily topped!

For years the three foreign-owned horse slaughter plants in the US had managed to persuade key gate keepers in the US Congress to block legislation that would have ended horse slaughter and the export of horses for slaughter.

But in January of 2007 things began to unravel when the New Orleans Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 1949 Texas law against selling horse meat was, in fact, constitutional. When the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, the Beltex and Dallas Crown plants in Texas threw up their hands and closed their doors, leaving Cavel the only horse slaughter plant in the US. But Cavel's troubles had only begun.

In 2005 the US Congress had passed an amendment to the 2006 Agriculture budget that removed funding for legally required USDA anti-mortem inspections of slaughter horses.

The law was intended to end horse slaughter, but the USDA circumvented it when its director Michael Johann instituted a programme allowing the plants to pay for their own inspections.

The Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Doris Day Animal League sued, claiming the new rule was illegal. The case disappeared into the court system until shortly after the Texas decision, when a lower court ruled that the USDA program was indeed illegal. Cavel was ordered closed. But Cavel quickly appealed the decision and received a temporary restraining order (TRO) to allow it to continue slaughtering horses.

As if this were not enough, in March of this year pictures appeared in the Dekalb paper showing Cavel's huge waste treatment tank foaming over with a massive, angry black blob worthy of a science fiction thriller. The tank, which had been installed with no concrete footer or containment was also splitting at a seam and spilling its contents onto the bare ground.

This image, and citizen protests, brought threats from the Dekalb Sanitary District to finally shut down Cavel's sewer service. Yet, despite a three-year record of discharge violations, this threat appeared to diminish when Cavel agreed to pay just some of its fines. The Environmental Protection Agency, though repeatedly informed of the issue, gave Cavel a pass just as they had years earlier when Cavel was caught pumping untreated waste into a nearby creek.

So when Judge Frederick Kapala ruled the Illinois law was not unconstitutional and ordered Cavel closed yet again, many thought the plant had finally gone down for the count. A small group of horse advocates even went so far as to hang a wreath in memory of the slaughtered horses on the main gate of the fortress-like building, where the slaughter lines had fallen silent.

Even Cavel's media-loving manager Jim Tucker, renowned for giving defiant interviews while sporting a blood-stained apron, went uncharacteristically silent.

But little did slaughter opponents know that Cavel and its legal team were planning the next move.

Meanwhile, in the Canadian town of Wolseley, people were talking about the new jobs that would result when the modern new Natural Valley Farm "beef" processing plant added a promised second shift.

When outbreaks of BSE (mad cow disease) had closed borders to live cattle in 2003, it had become apparent that Canada needed more of its own beef processing capacity.

In September of 2004, the Canadian federal government announced a Loan Loss Reserve Program to facilitate more rapid expansion of ruminant slaughter capacity. Natural Valley Farms' management utilised that programme as well as private investment.

Management has described the company as being "producer owned", referring to investments by local cattle producers. The processing plant in Wolseley opened just two years ago on June 14, 2005. A year later, the company opened a USDA accredited slaughter plant in nearby Neudorf to supply carcasses to the processing plant. But whether the government or the local cattle-raising investors knew it or not, Natural Valley Farms soon had something other than beef in mind. It appears by the time Cavel was begging the Chicago Seventh Circuit Court for a reprieve, a deal had already been worked out.

Natural Valley Farms applied for and received approval from the Canadian government to slaughter not only beef but equines (horses). This rating did not appear to have been discussed in the PR the plant served out to the local press and it is not clear if their government or private investors were ever appraised of the approval. But, according to sources, plans had already been finalized and Natural Valley Farms had an agreement to effectively sell out to a new co-op structure - a co-op behind which Cavel and its parent Velda appeared to have considerable influence. The co-op would slaughter and process horses for Velda.

As a bonus, the plants were built with a design capacity of 2500 head a week, compared to the design capacity of the Dekalb plant of only 500 head a week.

Sources indicated the funds for the deal were already in escrow pending the plant receiving an EU (European Union) certification as a supplier of horsemeat.

So every indication is that the Canadian government and cattle producers helped to pay for the construction of a plant to help the beef producers, when at least part of its purpose will be for horse slaughter. On Saturday, July 28, Natural Valley Farms announced that they had received their EU certification and would be slaughtering horses.

So a plant paid for by Canadian tax payers and beef producers, and designed to provide Canada with its own beef-processing capacity, is to be used to supply horsemeat for the palates of European gourmets.

Even now, contract buyers are collecting horses to feed into the kill chutes of the efficient new plants. And despite the passage of federal and state laws intended to close it, the Cavel plant at Dekalb is still going strong because the Chicago based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was talked into allowing its reopening.

But in yet another surprising last-minute development, the Chicago court has now announced that it will hold its expedited hearing on August 16. A process known to take years has been condensed to just a few weeks.

So if you want to find a company to hold up as an example of one expertly able to negotiate its way through the complexities of the US courts and government, now you have a name: Velda!