Investors bet on Oregon horse slaughter plant

Mar 16, 2012

Five years after the last horse slaughter plants were shuttered in Illinois and Texas following a ban on USDA inspection of horse meat, the American horse processing industry may now be on the brink of a resurrection.

The congressional rider that had prohibited USDA from inspecting horse meat—a necessity for interstate commerce—was quietly left out of the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill signed into law by President Obama in November. At the time, many had speculated whether investors would be willing to assume the risk of financially backing a horse packing plant, a sure lightening rod for angry animal rights activists and anti-slaughter lawmakers. But with plans now in the works to open a new $3 million horse slaughter facility near Herrmiston, OR, there seems little doubt that at least some investors see a bright and sustainable future in the horse slaughter market.

In fact, according to project facilitator and United Horsemen President Dave Duquette, there was no need to drum up interest in the project. Eager investors were knocking at Duquette’s door as soon as Congress lifted the inspection ban.

“All the investors started calling us,” Duquette explains. “I bet I had 15 people who emailed and called me right away and said, ‘If I can, I want to invest in a plant.’ We didn’t have to hunt for anybody.”

At present, there are five northwestern Indian tribes as well as a number of private investors who are actively looking at forming a co-op that would own and manage the plant.

According to a report in the Oregonian, the proposed facility will be located north of Interstate 84 on 242 acres, which has been purchased and is currently in escrow. The 20,000-square-foot plant is expected to provide 50-100 local jobs, and will have the capacity to process 100-150 horses daily. It is expected that ground will be broken on the new facility as soon as the details of the co-op are hammered out.

The location of the facility in Oregon’s northeast corner in close proximity to several of Oregon and Washington’s American Indian reservations is no accident. According to tribal range managers, tribal rangelands in the area are badly overpopulated with feral horses, which have negatively impacted the health of the land.

According to the Oregonian, an estimated 6,000 horses make their home on the 640,000-acre Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon; as many as 15,000 horses populate the 1.4 million-acre Yakama Indian Reservation in central Washington, and approximately 350 horses range on the 178,000-acre Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton.

Horses (from page 1) “We have 10 times the number of horses that the range can carry,” Jim Stephenson, natural resource specialist for the Yakama Nation, told the Oregonian. “This is the worst range habitat conditions I have ever seen.”

The difficulty of disposing of old, lame or unwanted horses has been an increasing issue since horse slaughter became economically unviable in 2007. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, state and local governments have reported horse neglect and abuse increased in some cases as much as 60 percent between 2006-2010. States have also reported a substantial increase of horses abandoned on public lands, a trend which has strained state financial resources. In addition, exports of live horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter increased over the four-year period by 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively, meaning that horse slaughter continues, but in plants not required to meet USDA standards for humane animal treatment.

Forces behind the Herrmiston facility view their project not merely as a return of horse slaughter to the U.S., but in many cases as an improvement and enhancement of the industry.

Case in point: according to Duquette, the Herrmiston plant will have alleys and a kill box designed by renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin to ensure that a minimum of stress and fear are inflicted on the animals. Grandin has also recommended that the plant use a third-party monitoring system to ensure that all processes are transparent. Duquette said that he and other project facilitators are currently in the process of selecting a company to provide monitoring services.

In another break with the past, the Herrmiston facility will also be home to the United Horsemen’s Rescue and Rejuvenation Center, a rescue for unwanted horses. Duquette explained that many horse rescues have little success in placing horses in new homes because of lack of professional training. By contrast, the Herrmiston facility, in cooperation with northwestern university equine science programs, will put viable horses through a training program, making them more marketable and increasing the chance of their being adopted out.

Curiously, investors are not the only ones who have taken an interest in the plant. Although the market for horse meat has traditionally focused on Europe and China, Duquette reported that a handful of white tablecloth restaurants in New York and Los Angeles have contacted him about the possibility of providing high-end steaks or “cheval medallions” for wellheeled domestic diners, signaling that the traditional American distaste for horsemeat may slowly be shifting. Ethnic markets in the U.S. already exist, including Tongan, Mongolian and Chinese populations.

The Herrmiston group has already contracted with a third-generation horse meat expert from Belgium to manage its foreign sales.

Despite the new humane slaughter protocol and horse rescue, there will doubtless be strong opponents to investors’ efforts to reinvent horse slaughter in the Northwest. Animal rights groups have loudly denounced the omission of the rider language that prohibited USDA inspection at horse plants. Now, many of these groups are redoubling their efforts to have legislation passed that would ban the practice outright.

In January, the bipartisan American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act was reintroduced to Congress after a similar bill passed the House but died in Senate last year. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal rights groups have been vocal supporters.

“The predatory horse slaughter industry has cash signs in its eyes, and it’s unrestrained by any compassion for these creatures. Its profiteers treat the horses like commodities on the hoof,” stated Wayne Pacelle, HSUS CEO in his blog. “It’s a bad outcome and we’ll fight them every step of the way.”

Duquette acknowledges that there is an element of risk, but says that investors are willing to go ahead regardless, pointing out that the involvement of the tribes makes political opposition a prickly business.

Yet there are other reasons why investors might think carefully before betting big on horse slaughter:

Oregon’s violent past with horse processing plants would be sufficient to give any investor pause. In 1997, the Belgian-owned Cavel West, Inc. processing plant in Redmond was firebombed and destroyed by three members of the radical animal rights group, Animal Liberation Front (ALF), causing over $1 million in damages. The perpetrators were convicted and are serving time for the attack. But especially following the fiery destruction of 14 trucks and over $2 million worth of damage in January at Harris Beef, there can be no doubt that eco-terrorists continue to be active and effective, and a horse slaughter plant might present an irresistible target.

Duquette and his investors remain undeterred.

“One thing we’re not going to be is afraid of the eco-terrorists,” says Duquette. “We’re going to take measures to make sure that they don’t get anything done.”

Duquette points out that through his work advocating for humane horse slaughter with United Horsemen, he has amassed an impressive stack of death threats, which he has turned over to the FBI. Clearly, this is not a cause for the faint of heart.

“You can’t be afraid of ’em,” says Duquette. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I was afraid of ’em.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent