American horse advocates have called into question the reliability of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which it said helped open the way for the resumption of horse slaughter on US soil.
The Equine Welfare Alliance and the Animal Law Coalition allege figures in the report, entitled “Horse Welfare: Action needed to address unintended consequences from cessation of domestic slaughter”, were presented in a misleading way.
In doing so, the GAO misrepresented horse abuse and neglect, the groups allege.
The report blamed falling horse prices and increased abuse and neglect on the closing of domestic slaughter plants in 2007.
The groups noted that shortly after the GAO issued its report, a conference committee reinstated funding for horse slaughter inspections, opening the way for slaughter to return to the US.
They said the report was widely quoted in the media and was also used as evidence in the lawsuit filed by Valley Meat Company in New Mexico against the US Department of Agriculture in its bid to get federal plant inspections approved for its horse abattoir in New Mexico.
The alliance, an umbrella group for more than 300 member organisations and more than 1000 individuals, said its own research indicated neglect levels were tied to hay prices, which had soared in a drought in 2007 and 2008.
Hay prices had also risen, it said, as a result of altering land use from 2005, with more corn planted instead of alfafa and pasture to meet the needs of the growing ethanol industry.
Alliance president John Holland said his organisation discovered issues with the data in relation to horse abuse in Colorado while conducting its own research.
“We were looking for the correlation between various factors such as unemployment, slaughter and hay prices on a state by state basis,” Holland said, “and when we looked at the Colorado data, we were reminded of its mention in the GAO report.”
The alliance challenged the report on several levels, saying it was peppered with the opinions of anonymous veterinarians.
However, it was the data in relation to Colorado – which the alliance says was the only equine welfare statistic in the entire report – that caused it the greatest concern.
The GAO claimed in the report to have contacted state veterinarians across the country and to have been told that abuse and neglect was increasing everywhere in the wake of the closing of the US plants in 2007.
The alliance checked and found data was available from six states – Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Georgia and Colorado.
The data showed that abuse and neglect had been in decline between 2008 and 2010 (the last year of the GAO study), and that the agency had used dates in the Colorado data that made it appear abuse had increased 60 percent.
The GAO had used data from 2005 – two years before the domestic plants closed – until 2009.
The alliance queried why the GAO had failed to use the data that would have been available for 2010 in Colorado, which showed a decline.
It questioned also why it would use data starting two years before the end of domestic slaughter.
“Not only did the GAO misrepresent the data, they completely missed the importance of hay prices and availability,” Holland said.
The alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data used by the GAO. It was denied. The alliance also took part in a conference call in a bid to get the GAO to withdraw the report.
“The GAO refused any response except to say that their reports were flawlessly cross checked,” Holland said.
He said the report had been the main claim to legitimacy among those who wished to bring horse slaughter back to the US.
“It has been quoted by the national press, and referenced in virtually every political debate on the issue. It was even cited as evidence in Valley Meats vs. the United States Department of Agriculture, and countless other documents.”
He condemned the report as being devoid of supporting data and containing “hocus-pocus analysis stuck together with the unsubstantiated opinions of anonymous ‘officials’.”
He noted that the three lawmakers who successful voted to ultimately strip the defunding language from an agriculture bill, effectively opening the way to the resumption of slaughter on US soil, were Senators Herb Kohl and Roy Blunt, and Representative Jack Kingston.
These were the same individuals who had requested the GAO report, he noted.
Holland said the GAO once had an an exemplary reputation for finding and analyzing data that could assist Congress in its decisions. That reputation was no longer deserved, he argued.
The GAO acknowledged that the number of horses slaughtered did not diminish following the domestic ban, but that their slaughter merely shifted to Canada and Mexico.
“At this point the study could have concluded, saying that with no change in slaughter, there could have been no impact … Yet the report goes on to make the case that there was a negative impact,” Holland said.
Probing the Colorado figures, Holland said the “deceit” was contained in the sentence which states:
“… Colorado data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1588 in 2009.”
“The example of Colorado is supposed to demonstrate the impact of the closings, but the plants closed in 2007, not 2005, and the GAO had access to data through 2010.
“By fudging the dates, the GAO blamed two years of increasing abuse on something that had not even happened yet and conveniently got rid of one year of declining abuse by omitting 2010.
“By using only two data points, the GAO made it sound like abuse and neglect had continued to increase after the closings and hid what was really happening in Colorado and many other states. Abuse and neglect had been increasing between 2005 and 2008, when it peaked and began a decline.”
Holland said the alliance’s own inquiries uncovered data on abuse in five other states, all of it disagreeing with the GAO claim that “state, local government and animal welfare organizations report a rise in investigations for horse neglect…”
He said the report quoted anonymous “officials” 86 times and anonymous veterinarians 33 times, and not one mention was made of the price or availability of hay, which the alliance said its own research had shown to be a major factor in levels of equine neglect.
“Drought and ‘the cost of feeding’ are mentioned only once in passing,” Holland said, “and yet, the hard data was again ignored in favor of relying on anonymous – and easily manipulated – opinions.”
The peak in abuse in virtually every state occurred in 2008, when the cost of hay, alfalfa, and gasoline all peaked that same year.
“Again, the GAO completely missed these factors or decided to ignore them in favor of their theory that the longer trips for horse kill buyers were the cause of lower horse prices.”
The obvious reason for lower horse prices was that recreational horse owners had dropped out of the bidding because of the huge escalation in the cost of horse ownership, he said.
“This was also the reason horse neglect spiked in 2008 as proven by our correlation study,” Holland said.
Holland noted a resurgence of abuse and neglect in Colorado after the decline of 2010, but noted again that this coincided with drought conditions in the state from 2010 to 2012.
“Hay prices soared, pastures turned to dust and abuse and neglect skyrocketed,” he said.
“The Colorado data once again shows that the GAO missed the linkage between neglect and the price and availability of hay, and instead presented a ridiculous case for abuse being caused by longer trips for the kill buyers.”