A horse slaughter plant is set to open in New Mexico, amid two legal challenges and the possibility that an agriculture bill to be considered by Congress in January could defund mandatory federal inspections. Alex Brown explains the current situation, and the many areas of uncertainty.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed an omnibus spending bill which removed language that had prevented the funding of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors for horse slaughter.
The removal of the language was the result of a hotly contested Government Accountability Office report which looked at the welfare of the horse in the absense of domestic slaughter.
The defunding language had been introduced in 2007, making horse slaughter effectively illegal in the US. Without such inspections, horses cannot be slaughtered for human consumption.
In the two years since horse slaughter in the US was essentially made legal at the federal level, three plants, in three states, have prepared for the resumption of the industry.
The last US-based plant had closed in 2007, in Illinois.
Over the last two years there has been a spate of ongoing legal wrangling at state and federal levels, led by the Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue, to challenge the practice.
On December 13 this year, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a temporary ban that had stopped the plants from opening. The proposed plant in Iowa had previously converted to beef. The remaining two plants, in New Mexico and Missouri, are still pursuing their desire to slaughter horses.
The slaughter plant in Roswell, New Mexico, owned by Valley Meat Company, had been given the green light to move forward, after winning a hearing before the state’s environment secretary for a renewal of its ground water discharge permit, on 22 October, 2013. It was challenged by the humane society and Front Range Equine Rescue over its waste water provisions.
However, the legal arguments are not yet over. On December 19, New Mexico’s attorney general, Gary King, sued the plant to keep it from opening.
The suit is based on food safety (a horse’s veterinary records go undocumented and bute, a common anti-inflammatory drug used in equines, is illegal for horses entering the food chain), water quality, and unfair business practices.
The suit could cost the state upwards of $US435,000 a month, as it winds through the courts, according to Blair Dunn, an attorney for Valley Meat, in a story for the Associated Press. This is the money that will be lost from the lack of operations during the litigation, and payable if the suit is unsuccessful.
The New Mexico plant intends to slaughter 100 to 120 horses a day. On a five-day week basis, this would equate to 25,000 to 30,000 horses a year.
The plant owner, Rick De Los Santos, claimed, in a report for the local KOB Eyewitness News 4, that it has contracts to ship horse-meat to Belgium, Russia and China. With the current contract, the plant would make $US350 per horse.
The slaughter plant in Gallatin, Missouri, owned by Rains Natural Meats, is also waiting to open. It, like the New Mexico plant, is waiting for the USDA inspection process to be funded and start.
The upcoming omnibus spending bill, which should be law before mid January 2014, may again include language that defunds USDA inspection.
If this language is reintroduced, then horse slaughter in the US won’t resume, and the nation will return to the status of 2007-2011.
While all this legal wrangling, debate and process evolves, the bigger picture is the passage of horse slaughter legislation at the federal level. The Safeguard American Food Exports Act (SAFE) (H.R. 1094/S. 541) has 162 co-sponsors in the House, and 27 co-sponsors in the Senate.
Until this bill is passed, more than 100,000 United States-based horses will continue to be exported to Canada, Mexico and Japan for slaughter each year.
In 2012, 176,000 horses were exported for slaughter, according to statistics provided by the Equine Welfare Alliance, an umbrella group for horse advocacy organisations.
Opening domestic slaughter will likely not change the demand for horse-meat much.
Passing the SAFE Act, and closing down export of horses for slaughter, will end the practice of horse slaughter for American horses.
Those who support horse slaughter argue that the horse is classified as livestock and as such, is no different from other livestock. They argue that the option of horse slaughter increases demand for horses at the bottom end of the market, which supports a better horse market for horse traders. They also argue that the option of slaughter reduces the potential for abuse cases. It is also a property rights issue. It would seem to be a profitable business for those directly involved.
Arguments from those who oppose horse slaughter focus on the fact that a horse is not a food animal, and is not treated as such for the majority of its lifetime; this causes food safety concerns.
They also argue that horses are an owner’s responsibility; arguing that the horse slaughter option reduces abuse cases and removes the need for owner responsibility. They also suggest that there is a weak link with abuse case numbers and the number of horses slaughtered; the number of horses slaughtered is simply driven by demand for horse-meat. Beyond that, there are emotional arguments and moral arguments as horses are often treated more like a companion animal, and have served mainkind well throughout history.