Back Door Route to Close Processing of Horses in the US
By Jill Montgomery
The Obama Administration’s budget for 2014 proposes cutting the funding for USDA meat inspection in plants that process horses for human consumption. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack supports defunding such inspection as well. Together their efforts will effectively create a work-around for the proposed bills that have failed repeatedly in Congress to make a federal ban on the slaughter of horses. The budget cut will yield the same result as if the bills had been passed. In simple terms, if funding for inspections is not approved, the meat cannot be inspected. Uninspected meat cannot be sold. This budget cut will create a de facto ban on processing horses for human consumption within the US.
Status of the Industry Today
According to 2012 USDA figures, 158,455 horses were shipped from the US for processing, 110,202 to Mexico and 48,253 to Canada. The USDA figures show that no horses have been processed in the US for human consumption since the 2007 Appropriations Budget ban on USDA horsemeat inspections. IL and TX have laws on the books to prohibit the slaughter of horses, but the national ban is the result of the 2007 Appropriations Budget rider that eliminates funding for USDA horsemeat inspections. In the 6 years prior to the ban, an average of 70% of all horses transported for slaughter in North America were processed in the US. That ban was lifted in 2011.
One US processing plant for horses stands ready to open as soon as USDA inspectors can be assigned to inspect the meat. New Mexico’s Valley Meats will be the first US Plant to process horses for human consumption since 2007. Four others are navigating the USDA application process and poised to begin their operations in 2013. These businesses will open in MO, TN, OK, and WA once they have passed inspection. This availability of regional plants in the US would greatly shorten the long transport distances animals currently endure on their way to slaughter in Mexico and Canada.
The consequences of the federal ban are well documented in the Government Accounting Office “Report to Congressional Committees on Horse Welfare (GAO Report).”1 The report states: “Clearly, the cessation of domestic slaughter has had unintended consequences, most importantly, perhaps, the decline in horse welfare in the United States.” If this ban is reinstated, this time the consequences must be considered intentional.
The 2012 USDA figures do not include the unwanted horses that were not sent across borders to be processed. Those that remained in the US include many that were abandoned by their owners on public lands and at livestock auctions when they failed to find willing buyers. Since the 2007 plant closures, cruelty investigations have found increased numbers of unwanted horses starved and neglected on their owners’ properties.
Local governments, law enforcement agencies, and animal control centers have been stretched to their limits with providing care and management for these unwanted horses. Newspapers stories, social media and even the GAO report have chronicled the details of many cases. The Animal Welfare Council’s Survey of Animal Control Centers and the Unwanted Horse2 indicated that 83% of the responding agencies could not house or care for any horses. Those that could care for horses (17%) had capacity for only 10 or fewer horses. In order to improve facilities to accommodate (more) horses, 40% indicated they would need at minimum $100,0002.
Horse rescues and sanctuaries are overwhelmed. There are between 109 and 432 horse rescues and sanctuaries in the United States, according to three sources including the Internal Revenue Service, a 2010 University of CA – Davis National Survey, and American Horse Defense Fund (a large horse welfare organization). These Unwanted Horse surveys showed that 69% of the identified rescues and sanctuaries were either at or near capacity. The University of California study estimates if all the rescues and sanctuaries in the US were full to capacity they could serve 13,400—less than 10% of the horses shipped for processing last year alone. These numbers reveal a huge gap in the capacity for maintaining the number of unwanted horses surfacing in the US each year, and begs the question of whether or not euthanasia is necessary for some or many of these unwanted horses.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates the minimum cost of care for a horse is $1,825 annually. Even those unwanted horses still being adequately cared for by their owners—for lack of a market for resale or other disposal options—represent a direct economic burden for the owners and a diversion of resources that might otherwise be supporting healthy, desirable horses with an attendant economic and quality gain for horses’ welfare and the industry.
Horsemeat in the World Marketplace
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes three methods of humane euthanasia for horses: barbiturate overdose, gunshot, and captive bolt. Captive bolt is the typical method for euthanizing horses being processed (slaughtered) for food. This may be an unthinkable option to some horse owners in the United States but in much of the rest of the world, horses are processed for food in the same way as are other livestock species. Worldwide, the Food and Agriculture Organization shows the top eight producing countries yielded 926,425 metric tonnes of horsemeat for food from 2010 to 2011. Outside of the U.S., more than one billion people consume horsemeat, in some places by preference and in some by necessity. Horsemeat is now being imported back into the U.S., primarily for zoo meat, but also for ethnic markets desiring horsemeat.
Less than 2% of the total U.S. horse population is exported for processing for food annually, compared to other horse mortality of 3-4%. Traditionally, horses sent for processing are unserviceable, vicious or otherwise unacceptable in today’s equestrian community.
The administration and Secretary Vilsack maintain that eliminating horsemeat inspection is a fiscal issue; however, the numbers don’t add up to reflect sound economic policy. Given that research shows the welfare of horses in the US has declined since the cessation of domestic equine slaughter, and given that processing of horsemeat would create a viable commodity with net economic gain for the marketplace, such arguments from Washington ring false. It would seem that proponents of the USDA exclusion (and those pushing for an outright Federal ban on equine slaughter) must be interested in something other than the welfare of horses. The question must be asked, what is the real goal of this maneuver? Could it be the first foray into a drive to ban consumption of all animal products? If so, the entire livestock industry and its clientele would do well to sound the alarm.
The following excerpt from WY State Rep. Sue Wallis’ 2009 position paper3 on the proposed Federal equine slaughter ban addresses the core concerns arising from such legislation more succinctly than most.
The United States slaughters and exports beef, pork, and chicken, all of which are killed humanely under regulated inspection, but [consuming] horse meat—which is consumed by the majority of world cultures including our closest neighbors in Canada, Iceland, Mexico, and South America; which appears on the menus of the finest restaurants in Europe; and which is purveyed in grocery stores right alongside the other meats all over Asia and Polynesia—would be a felony for Americans. Horse meat was widely consumed in the United States and Britain until the late 1940s….
This would represent the first time that the consumption of ANY domestic animal is prohibited in the United States. If it can be legally established that the regulated slaughter of horses is in and of itself inherently cruel and inhumane—then it is also true that the regulated slaughter of cows, pigs, and chickens is also cruel and inhumane. There is nothing that makes horses different than any other livestock animal. Thus the legal precedent would be set to make it a felony to consume the flesh of any animal.
This would be the first time that Americans are prohibited from consuming any food item based on purely social and political reasons. The first time that the US Congress has contemplated the audacity of trying to influence or change the culinary traditions and food practices of other nations.
Even though US horse owners would be criminalized for accessing a world market, that market would not stop eating horses, they will simply turn elsewhere for the meat they seek to import.
Legislation and regulation introduced to date that bans processing horses for human consumption lacks provisions for viable solutions addressing consequences for the horses that would otherwise be processed. These consequences include and are not limited to: increased suffering for the horse through abandonment, and neglect; economic hardship for the animals’ owners, the local governments that are faced with caring for unwanted horses, and the overwhelmed horse rescues and sanctuaries.
The horse industry is actively engaged in work to resolve the present unwanted horse dilemma as well as to develop sustainable solutions. New programs are being deployed to educate horse owners to “own responsibly,” one key avenue to preventing more cases of unwanted horses. Prior to legislation or regulation being adopted to ban the practice of equine slaughter (either directly or through the backdoor of budget manipulation), alternatives for the maintenance or the humane disposal of unwanted equines must have enough capacity to accommodate the animals currently being sold for processing.
For more information on the topic, to learn what you can do to help unwanted horses, including contacting lawmakers, and to help increase viable alternatives to equine slaughter, please visit the Unwanted Horse Coalition website at www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org or the Animal Welfare Council at www.animalwelfarecouncil.org
- 1. Government Accountability Office Report to Committees of Congress on HORSE WELFARE:
Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter,
Released June 2011
- A Survey of Animal Control Centers and the Unwanted Horse, Animal Welfare Council, © May 2009
- The Fundamental Truth of Animal Agriculture, An informational Position Paper, Representative Sue Wallis, 2009