Two of the biggest animal welfare groups in the United States have reacted with dismay to news that the government will process an application from New Mexico for inspecting horses at a slaughter plant.
Horses have not been slaughtered on US soil since 2007, after US authorities refused to fund federal inspections of plants, meaning they were unable to slaughter horses for human consumption.
Since then, tens of thousands of horses have been shipped annually to New Mexico and Canada for slaughter, with the number soaring to 180,000 in 2012.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) have criticized the Obama Administration for its decision to process the application, saying killing horses for human consumption is inhumane and creates a serious health risk to consumers.
They were joined in their criticism by Front Range Equine Rescue and Animal Protection of New Mexico.
The step towards a New Mexico slaughter plant has also been criticized by the state’s attorney general and land commissioner.
If the application is approved, it will open the door for Valley Meat Company to resume slaughter on US soil.
The charities described the government’s move as surprising, noting that it would play out against the scandal unfolding in the European Union (EU) around horse meat contamination of processed beef products.
“The federal government could potentially spend its resources to open new horse slaughter plants at a time when the sequestration is looming and spending cuts could affect food safety inspections for US meat products,” the charities said.
They said there were legitimate concerns about the health risks associated with consuming the meat of horses that are often treated with drugs that are prohibited for use in animals slaughtered for food.
The discovery of residues of these drugs, which include the common anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, or bute, in horse meat exported from Canada and Mexico, has prompted the HSUS and Humane Society International to call for a moratorium on the sale in the EU of the meat of horses of US origin.
“Slaughtering horses for human consumption is archaic, inhumane, and unsafe, given the medicine chest of drugs often administered to horses and prohibited for human consumption,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the HSUS.
“It is astonishing that we may see the resumption of horse slaughter on US soil while Europe is still reeling from a horse meat scandal. Have we not learned anything about the industry’s deception in Europe and the turmoil it has caused?”
The senior vice president of government relations for the ASPCA, Nancy Perry, said: “If the US Department of Agriculture moves forward with allowing the cruel and toxic horse slaughter industry to enter our country, this administration is leading our nation in precisely the wrong direction.
“Recent polling shows that 80 per cent of the American public overwhelmingly opposes the slaughtering of horses for human consumption, and given the current firestorm of concern and outrage over horse meat entering the food supply in Europe, it is time for Congress to prevent even one more American horse from suffering this terrible fate and stop horse slaughter in the US once and for all.”
Front Range Equine Rescue president Hilary Wood said: “The slaughter of American horses for meat is an unnecessary and tragic end for these icons of our nation’s history.
“American horses will suffer cruel deaths in New Mexico and will continue to be slaughtered abroad. Horse slaughter also brings a potentially toxic environmental threat to the state, with horses’ lives ending with a terrifying death, to be turned into an expensive and possibly toxic dinner.”
Lisa Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, said: “New Mexicans have repeatedly rejected the idea of a horse slaughter plant in our state. Horses are a valuable part of our heritage, and we’re determined to develop a robust safety net for them, not condemn them to slaughter.”
New Mexico’s Attorney General, Gary King, also voiced his concerns.
“I still oppose the opening of a horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico, and I am concerned about the impact it would have on local consumers,” he said.
“The horse meat scandal in Europe has raised concerns about human health risks associated with consuming the meat of US horses. Many horses may have been treated with drugs prohibited by US and European regulations from ever being administered to animals that enter the food chain. A horse slaughtering plant in our state that produces meat for human consumption is still a bad idea.”
New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell added: “As a veterinarian, natural resource manager, and someone who has had the great good fortune to grow up with and around horses, I am very concerned about their health and safety. If a horse is hurt, terminally ill, or has no chance to find a loving home, then humane euthanasia is an important option.
Powell said there were not enough unwanted horses in New Mexico to make such a plant economically viable. “It means horses would be trucked in from across the nation.
“We do not have the safeguards and oversight in place to ensure their humane handling, transport, and euthanasia. New Mexico can do much better by these intelligent and gentle creatures and I strongly oppose this ill-conceived proposal.”
There is no system in the US to track medications given to horses to ensure that horse meat is safe for human consumption.
The HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue have petitioned the US Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to declare American horse meat unfit for human consumption because of the food safety question. The agencies have yet to respond to the petitions.
The HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue say they intend to file a lawsuit if authorities approve Valley Meat’s application.
The charities noted that the inspections required at the plant would be funded by US taxpayers. They urged Congress to reintroduce and swiftly pass legislation to outlaw horse slaughter in the US and ban the export of live horses across US borders for slaughter.