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Overview of the legislation
The Safeguard American Food Exports Act (S.A.F.E.) is legislation which would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The S.A.F.E. Act (H.R. 1094 / S. 541) is a bipartisan measure that would outlaw horse slaughter operations in the U.S. and end the current export of American horses for slaughter. If passed, this measure would impose fines and prison time for anyone who sells, transports, imports or exports horses going to any horse processing facility, regardless of how humane and regulated it is. The Act makes processing horses for human consumption illegal in the U.S.
While health claims form the basis for one of these bills, the fundamental driving force behind both comes from groups claiming “humane concerns” on behalf of the animals. Yet the government’s own research, laid out in the Government Accounting Office’s Report to Congress, indicates that the cessation of horse slaughter within US borders has negatively impacted the welfare of horses in the United States.1 As with past proposed measures to ban horse processing, this legislation offers nothing to support the care and costs of the unwanted horses that would otherwise go to processing.
HR 1094 prohibits the sale or transport via interstate or foreign commerce of equines and equine parts intended for human consumption; this bill effectively shuts down horse export to Canada and Mexico as well as any interstate merchandising of horsemeat for human consumption.
S. 541 claims to prevent human health threats allegedly posed by the consumption of equines raised in the United States. The bill is based on the claim that horsemeat is tainted and unsafe, the assertion being that because the source animals are not raised commercially for food, they may at some time have received drugs such as phenylbutazone that might present a health threat to humans consuming the meat.
Processing horses for food is a trending topic this year. Early in 2013, a European scandal over food marketed as beef that contained horsemeat created a media frenzy and focused attention on the topic of horsemeat. It is legal to eat horsemeat in most countries. The true source of the scandal was the fraud behind the mislabeled products, not food safety. According to the Irish Food Safety Authority (IFSA), one of the countries initially aware of the mixed meat issue, “…while the burgers were not 100 percent beef as advertised, they did not pose a public health threat.”2
As the scandal progressed, questions about the potential for drug residue in the meat were raised, particularly in regards to the drug phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). In a press release statement Professor Dame Sally Davies, the United Kingdom Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer, states; “Horsemeat containing phenylbutazone presents a very low risk to human health… Phenylbutazone, known as bute, is a commonly used medicine in horses. It is also prescribed to some patients who are suffering from a severe form of arthritis… At the levels of bute that have been found (in horsemeat), a person would have to eat 500 to 600 burgers a day that are 100% horse meat to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose. And it passes through the system quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies… In patients who have been taking phenylbutazone as a medicine there can be serious side effects but these are rare. It is extremely unlikely that anyone who has eaten horse meat containing bute will experience one of these side effects.”3 Professor Hugh Pennington, from his emeritus post at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and as one of the world’s top food safety experts, weighs in to say horse meat is safer than beef because it does not contain E. coli. “There are no E. coli cases associated with horsemeat, though there are around 1,000 cases linked to cattle in the UK each year.” Pennington says horse is a “bog-standard [completely ordinary] red meat.” He acknowledges that residues of the horse pain killer known as bute are a “theoretical risk,” but says somebody would have to eat “tons” of horse burgers before there would be any harm.4
The resulting stir both in Europe and the U.S. may have prompted the timing for the March introduction of the S.A.F.E. act to an American audience primed to be suspicious of horsemeat.
The bills may also be driven by the proponents’ desire to prevent the opening of U.S. horse processing plants; with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) applications approved, these plants became a viable option when the 2012-2013 budget passed with funding for the plants’ USDA meat inspectors. Three plants have completed the federal requirements for approval.
On June 28, 2013 the USDA issued its own statement about inspections at the New Mexico plant. In a written statement, a USDA representative said “that unless Congress votes to enact another funding ban, the agency is legally bound to conduct horsemeat inspections at the New Mexico plant. The Administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law.”
“Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) must issue a grant of inspection once an establishment has satisfied all federal requirements, as this plant has done,” the representative said. “FSIS anticipates two additional applications for equine inspection will meet the mandated requirements in the coming days.”5
If Congress again prohibits using federal money for ante-mortem inspection of horses intended for slaughter for human consumption, equine slaughter in the U.S. could not continue. That is because without the USDA mark of inspection, no horsemeat could move in commerce. Furthermore, the proposed budget issued by the Obama administration for 2013-2014 has eliminated these meat inspection positions in a purported budget cutting effort. Again, these measures are without provision for the longer term and greater expense of caring for the unwanted animals that are kept alive.
Behind the Scenes
The bills are sponsored by U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Reps. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. They and their cosponsors (112 U.S. Representatives, and 15 U.S. Senators) appear to question the USDA’s ability to detect chemical residues in meat and ensure the inspected meat products are safe for consumption, yet this is the very same agency that daily assures the American public of the healthfulness of all other inspected meat.
In the nearly seven years that elapsed under the previous ban, USDA found that equine meat inspection has changed, including the need to ensure there is no comingling of horsemeat with other meat products, so the FSIS has established stringent inspection processes including new testing capabilities and labeling requirements.
FSIS has enacted species testing for meat and poultry capable to detect and differentiate between beef, sheep, swine, poultry, deer and horse in order to avoid having one species sold as another (which was what occurred on a large scale earlier this year in Europe). FSIS also adopted validated testing and sampling methods to detect residues of drugs and/or chemicals in equine tissues. FSIS will test for approximately 130 pesticides and veterinary drugs in horses being slaughtered. The concerns raised by S. 541 have already been resolved by the USDA FSIS.
The bills’ proponents also claim that horse slaughter is in itself cruel and not humane; however, this claim begs the question: If captive bolt euthanasia of livestock is not humane for horses, how can it be humane for other livestock? And what precedent does this assumption set?
Given the USDA FSIS protocols now in place, why raise the issue of horse slaughter now, or at all? One must delve more deeply to discover the true proponents behind these bills and understand their motivation. Animal rights groups in the guise of non-profit charities alleging to support “humane treatment of animals” are lobbying for these bills to further their greater end goals, to destroy the market value and common use of all livestock animals.6
Science should guide this matter, not emotion, yet why do our elected officials nevertheless disregard their own (GAO) research? Why do they instead take up the causes of the well-funded animal rights activists? It should give the ordinary horse owner pause for consideration and encourage him or her to question their representatives’ logic.
Today the greater number of Americans have no direct experience with food production, harvest or hunting, experiencing instead a disconnected “meat comes from the grocery store” mentality. To this group the concept of killing and consuming an animal with which one is familiar is acutely uncomfortable. But in truth, horses are not the romanticized characters of movies and television, endowed with anthropomorphic traits. Horses are real animals, perhaps more wonderful than the movies could even portray, but as living things they have an end to life.
The vast majority of horse owners take their responsibility seriously for end of life decisions regarding their livestock. No one is proposing that horse owners should send their horses for processing if they wish to choose other options. However, those who are familiar with food production and specifically meat production may see the use of slaughter as a realistic part of animal agriculture, as well as a pragmatic means of disposal for unwanted horses. It is also an efficient use of resources. Recycling the remains of a horse yields food, leather, horse-hair products such as jewelry and musical instruments, bone meal and other products. It is certainly a more environmentally friendly method than is the decades of ground contamination caused from a buried carcass euthanatized with a barbiturate overdose.
The American Veterinarian Medicine Association recognizes three humane methods of euthanasia for horses: barbiturate overdose, gunshot to the brain, and captive bolt, the method deemed humane for livestock at processing plants. Demonizing those who choose to end an unwanted horse’s life by shipping for processing is both unfair and hypocritical. Making it illegal is a travesty, especially when there are not resources available to maintain and care for these animals.
The rescues are full, hay costs have skyrocketed, equine neglect cases are up – in some states as much as doubled in the past year. 158,000+ horses were shipped for processing in 2012 to Canada and Mexico from the US and still it was not enough to return a floor value for U.S. horses because so many unwanted horses remain within our borders. The horse industry has reached the moment in which the decision is starvation versus slaughter.7 Surely swift humane euthanasia at a USDA FSIS regulated and inspected processing plant is a kinder end than starving to death.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Quarter Horse Association, and many other horse and ag groups oppose the S.A.F.E. Act bills (H.R. 1094 / S. 541) to ban the transport for and processing of horses for human consumption. These bills are based on unsound science, they create unfunded mandates and they absolutely do not provide for the welfare of unwanted horses. The unintended consequences of the previous cessation of domestic slaughter—neglect, abandonment and other equine mistreatments—will become intentional consequences if a ban is renewed.
1. U.S. Government Accountability Office. Report to Committees of Congress on HORSE WELFARE: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter (GAO-11-228), released June 2011
2. FSAI Survey Finds Horse DNA in Some Beef Burger Products, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Press Release, Tuesday, 15 January 2013
3. UK Department of Health: Bute in horsemeat: statement from Chief Medical Officer, Press Release, 14 February 2013
4. Professor Pennington Speaks Out on Meat, Greens and Spoilage by News Desk, March 26, 2013
5. Food Safety News, Letter from The Editor: Winning Towns Might Not Get Much by Dan Flynn, July 7, 2013
6. Animal Welfare Council, Animal Welfare and Animal Rights: A War of Words with Casualties Mounting by Jill Montgomery, 2013, http://animalwelfarecouncil.com/awc-articles/
7. Food Safety News, Letter From The Editor: Beer for My Horses by Dan Flynn, March 3, 2013