Horse Slaughter: Is It An Issue Worth Fighting About?

Sep 23, 2004 - 10:00 PM

“Dog food!” Who hasn’t threatened their horse with that epithet after a particularly trying ride or a harrowing trailer-loading experience? Said in jest—mostly—it harks back to a time when horses were true working animals who continued to be useful even in death by feeding Rover and creating glue.

Today, though, horse meat is no longer used in dog food. In 1966 the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act forced pet-food manufacturers to list their products’ ingredients, and consumers were upset by the amount of horse meat in their pet food. So they switched to beef and beef byproducts. As a result, U.S. horse slaughterhouses, which never numbered more than 35, declined sharply after 1966, and only three remain today.

Those slaughterhouses—BelTex Corporation in Ft. Worth, Texas; Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Texas; and Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill.—provide horse meat as a delicacy for human diners in Europe and Japan. Some 40,000 to 50,000 horses are slaughtered domestically, with an additional 30,000 or so going to Canada and another 1,000 to Mexico.

Over the last several years, a bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representa-tives that would make it illegal to slaughter horses for human consumption in the United States and would also outlaw exporting horses for slaughter. But this is the first year that The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 857), has received strong backing.

Initially introduced by Republican John E. Sweeney of New York, it has gained bipartisan support, garnering some 226 co-sponsors in the House. Although it only takes 218 votes to pass legislation on the floor, the bill has bogged down in the Agriculture Committee and has never reached the floor for debate or a vote.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican of Hopkinsville, Ky., has made it his mission to see that H.R. 857 reaches the House floor. Whitfield first became aware of the issue of horse slaughter when a friend told him the story of Ferdinand.

Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby in 1986 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1987, then was sold to Thoroughbred breeders in Japan. Sadly, when his offspring didn’t measure up, he ended up in a slaughterhouse in 2002. This story, and others like it, prompted Whitfield, a Thoroughbred owner, to start persuading his fellow Congressmen to co-sponsor the bill.

The Journey Is The Real Problem

For most proponents of H.R. 857, it’s not so much the death of horses, but the traumas they undergo on their way to the slaughterhouse that are offensive.

Because there are only three slaughterhouses in the United States, horses that end up there are not usually sold directly. Instead horse transporters, or “killer buyers,” go to auctions around the country to buy cheap horses. When their trailer is full, probably a double-decker trailer used for cattle and pigs, they head off down the road, sometimes for 24 hours at a stretch until they reach the slaughterhouse.

“I went to the New Holland Sale in Pennsylvania,” said Whitfield. “There was one horse there with a leg so badly infected he couldn’t stand up.”

The idea of that horse making the long trip to slaughter in a crowded trailer goaded Whitfield and the group he was with to buy the horse and send him back to Kentucky.

Once at their destination, horses are killed by captive penetrating bolt, a technique that anti-slaughter groups have reported to occasionally leave horses alive and conscious as they proceed through the plant. Plant officials deny this allegation.

But the cruelty inherent in making the trip to slaughter is not the only reason Whitfield and others are speaking out against horse slaughter. Cathleen Doyle, a horse owner of Shadow Hills, Calif., is the founder of HoofPac, a political-action committee created to fight horse slaughter for human consumption. Doyle also founded the California Equine Council.

“For me, the issue struck when I went to the feed store and paid state sales tax on horse food,” said Doyle. California has no tax on feed for food and fiber animals or on animals destined for human consumption.  “Either it is or it isn’t a food animal,” explained Doyle. “Paying that tax because it isn’t a food animal implied an inherent tenet that if you paid money for it not to be a food animal, it shouldn’t be a food animal.”

Behind the simple question of a tax is the inherent conundrum of horse slaughter in the United States: People do not eat horse meat in the United States. You can’t buy it at the grocery store or order it at a restaurant, no matter how fancy. Companies from Belgium and France own the three slaughterhouses and export all the meat.

Both Whitfield and Doyle believe that the horse has a different role in the United States than that of food and fiber animal. Whitfield began his letter to Congressmen asking for their support by writing, “History was written on the back of a horse.”

“An entire society has adhered to the practice of not eating horse meat,” said Doyle. “If we have embraced this culturally and nationally, why are we allowing these animals to be brought up, slaughtered and shipped as food animals?”

Those two arguments form the basis for H.R. 857, which begins with the statement, “Horses have played a significant role in the history and culture of the United States. Horses in the United States are not raised for food or fiber. As a non-food and recreational animal, horses should be protected from slaughter.”

That may be why many owners have no idea that the slaughterhouse is the eventual destination for their pet when they send him to auction, even though you could certainly argue that anyone who sells a horse for less than $1,000 should know better.  In a 1999 survey of New York residents, fully 64 percent of those surveyed thought it was illegal to slaughter horses for food.

Not Pro-Slaughter, But Pro-Horse

It may seem like there are a myriad of reasons to make horse slaughter illegal, but both the American Quarter Horse Association and the Association of American Equine Practitioners stand firmly against H.R. 857. Both groups’ leaders insist that they’re not pro-slaughter but pro-horse, pro-horse welfare and pro-horse owner.

“We favor the rights of our horse owners,” explained Tom Persechino, senior director of marketing at the AQHA. “Our first choice for unwanted horses is adoption or retirement, but the information that we have supports our position that [horse slaughter] is a humane, viable method of humane euthanasia.”

AQHA leaders believe that the horse owner is the best person to make decisions about their personal property–horses in this case–as long as the horse is treated humanely and with dignity and respect.

“The scientific data supports horse slaughter as a humane method of euthanasia,” said Persechino. “When we were at the facilities, we never witnessed gruesome, inhumane slaughter.”

Quarter Horses are the most popular breed in the United States (approximately 3.1 million), making up just under half the population of horses in the country. Although no one keeps statistics on what breed of horse is sent to slaughter, it stands to reason that a great number of those horses are Quarter Horses.

The AQHA is connected with the American Cattlemen’s Association, which opposes H.R. 857 on the grounds that it’s a slippery slope. Laws against the slaughter of cattle might follow, especially of veal calves.

Doyle went head-to-head with the AQHA, suggesting that irresponsible breeders are part of the reason that these slaughterhouses still exist.

“Every horse should have a real value,” Doyle insisted, “not a false floor of a slaughterhouse price. If you remove that alternative for irresponsible horsemanship, it will encourage breeding more carefully. As long as slaughter is in place, there is a reward for irresponsible horsemanship.”

Persechino agreed that breeders’ education could help. “We need to be stewards of the breed,” he said, “so there’s not this unmanageable number of horses in the population.”  But Persechino, and leaders of the AAEP, has other reasons for opposing H.R. 857.  “It’s a bad bill. It doesn’t deal with funding for management for horses or their disposal,” he said.

Bottom line: If the anti-slaughter bill passes Congress, there will be as many as 85,000 horses a year who need another option besides slaughter.

At the AAEP’s low estimate of $5 per day per horse ($1,825 per year), maintaining these horses quickly mushrooms into a huge expense (more than $150 million per year). Even if all of the horses were euthanized by lethal injection, the cost of the veterinarian and disposal would be significant.

Although more than 2,000 horse-rescue and retirement groups exist, AAEP officials are concerned that they don’t have the funding or the knowledge to adequately care for these horses. So they intend to publish guidelines for horse rescue operations on horse care.

Another AAEP concern is the disposal of horse carcasses. In many rural states, horses can be buried on private property, but not nationwide. California has both rendering facilities and landfills that will take large-animal carcasses, but not for free.

Doyle estimated that it costs $85 to have an animal picked up and taken to rendering and $115 to have a veterinarian euthanize a horse where she lives in suburban Southern California.

The AAEP and the AQHA worry that owners who would send an animal to slaughter may find that $200 prohibitive and will simply neglect or mistreat the horse instead.

Nevertheless, the number of horses slaughtered annually in the United States has dropped from more than 300,000 in the early 1990s to about 50,000 today, with no special support system or infrastructure, and horse-abuse cases haven’t markedly risen.

Is A Law Really Necessary?

This decrease in horses slaughtered brings up a point that neither side has addressed. Horse transporters continue to buy horses at auctions and bring them to slaughter-houses because it’s a profitable business. But it is a marginal business. Transporters receive anywhere from 20 to 30 cents per pound for horses, and that’s only for medium to large horses in reasonable condition.

That’s why they stuff horses into double-decker trailers. It simply isn’t profitable any other way.

Rising gasoline prices aren’t helping profitability, nor are new guidelines regulating the transport of horses destined for slaughter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture published the final rule on humane transport of horses to slaughter in 2001, and its prohibitions go into effect in 2006. These stipulate that double-decker trailers may no longer be used and that food, water and rest must be provided for each animal prior to and during travel. Transporters must certify that each horse is able to bear weight on all four legs, is not blind, and can walk unassisted. They also must separate stallions and other aggressive horses from the group.

A fine of up to $5,000 per horse will make it prohibitive to ignore these regulations if they’re enforced.

Another issue that may affect horse transporters is that of animal identification. With the USDA’s plan to eventually have all livestock identified, transporters may need to obtain health certificates to cross state lines. This additional paperwork will make it less profitable and will certainly cut down on the number of stolen horses that end up in slaughterhouses.

It will also make it easier to track transporters, insuring that they’re following federal guidelines. These factors may combine to make it a losing business to transport horses to slaughter.

A third issue is that horses simply aren’t treated as food animals in the United States. In England, a complicated passport system has been developed to try to insure that horses destined for the dinner table never ingest drugs or medicine that might be harmful to humans. The United States has no such regulations, and there aren’t any plans to introduce them. Thus, the market for American horse meat may dwindle as Europeans and Japanese realize that U.S. horse meat is likely to be less safe than beef or pork.

So under current laws, horse slaughter in the United States may be a doomed enterprise anyway. But that doesn’t mean that Sweeney, Whitfield and the numbers of anti-horse slaughter organizations like HoofPac are going to sit quietly and wait. A bill has been introduced to the Senate as well by John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada who was a practicing veterinarian before his tenure in the Senate.

But it may never come up for vote. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from southwest Virginia, and he opposes the bill for the reasons stated by the AQHA and the AAEP. Until he allows the bill to leave committee, Congress won’t get to vote.

Legal Fires Break Out in Illinois and Texas

In 2002, the Cavel International horse slaughter plant in DeKalb, Ill., burned down, leaving only the two Texas slaughterhouses existing. This spring there was a hot legal battle to try and make horse slaughter illegal in Illinois before the plant could reopen.

In March Rep. Robert Molaro, a Democrat from Chicago, sponsored a House bill that would make horse slaughter illegal, which didn’t pass. In May Sen. John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, tried in the Senate. Actress Bo Derek testified in front of the Illinois Senate in support of the bill.

Despite celebrity approval, the Illinois senators also turned the bill back. Concerns over appearing anti-business motivated many senators as the Cavel plant meant 40 jobs and $90,000 per year in property taxes for the local government.

On June 9 the Belgian-owned Cavel International reopened its doors and commenced operations.

The only other state to have such a law is California, which passed a bill to make it illegal to slaughter horses in California and to import or export them for slaughter, in 1998.

The slaughterhouses in Texas are also undergoing a legal battle. In 2002 Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued an opinion that the horse slaughterhouses were in were in violation of Chapter 149 of the Texas Agriculture Code, which makes it a criminal offense to sell horse meat for human consumption. Beltex and Dallas Crown sued in federal court. The case is still pending.


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