Drought complicates already sticky horse issue

Aug 3, 2012

—Association begs USDA to inspect horse meat.

The country’s widespread drought has left many a pasture barren and the prospects for winter feed are slim and expensive.

Cattlemen have been faced with the unfortunate need to reduce herds and send cattle to the feed yard and beyond. The same problem faces horse owners, but without the humane option provided by the packer.

Tuesday, July 31, Wyoming State Rep. Sue Wallis, R-District 53, sent an impassioned letter and petition to the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsak, urging him to help horse owners and horses alike by supporting the inspection of horse slaughter. The appeal calls the inspection of domestic horse processing facilities “a moral and ethical imperative that USDA must address without delay” in light of the current situations.

Wallis, who is also a co-chair of the newly formed International Equine Business Association (IE- BA), implored Vilsak in the letter to “immediately provide the inspection necessary to humanely and safely process horses in facilities that are ready to do so in the United States.” The letter implicates USDA as willfully taking no action on existing statues providing for the inspection of horse meat and processing facilities.

“It has come to our attention that USDA is promulgating directives to states that indicate the agency has no intention of providing the inspection they are required by long-standing U.S. law to provide, and are actively discouraging state departments of agriculture from implementing any kind of state inspection.

The “longstanding U.S. law” requiring USDA provide inspections references the semi-recent refunding of the practice. In 2007, domestic horse slaughter for human consumption was all but banned when USDA inspections of horse meat were defunded. However, an agriculture spending bill signed by President Obama November 2011 quietly returned funding to USDA for horse meat inspection, thereby reopening the doors to domestic equine processing.

Since then, several beef processing plants have been acquired with the intention of changing them over to accommodate horses and plans have been drafted to build several new ones in a few western states. However, financial issues, local opposition by communities where planned plants are or would be, and lack of official action from groups like USDA have caused significant stalling of many projects. Some are all but ready and waiting, however, as pointed out in IE- BA’s letter.

“Several horse processing facilities are ready to offer horse owners a fair price for the animals they desperately need to sell—or could be within days—to provide much-needed emergency relief. Markets for the product are ready to accept it domestically and internationally if the meat is US- DA-inspected exactly as it was before 2007.”

The letter Willis and IE- BA sent to Vilsak included significant background information and links supporting assertions made.

Included in additional documentation were a number of anecdotes and comments from Wyoming ranchers and others facing hard decisions about their horses due to the current drought.

Wyoming horse breeder Ingrid Buchmeier described the state of her feed stores for the coming winter.

“Our hay is a 100 percent loss, nada, zip this year. Quite a few folks are in the same boat as us in this area. The cattle can be sold, the sheep can be sold, the goats can be sold, but horses are a different story.”

Most of the tales and comments voiced sadness at the need to get rid of their horses due to feed prices or plain lack of feed, and frustration with the lack of humane options available to them. Several ranchers opined they’d rather shoot their horses themselves after a pat and a treat rather than subject them to the “highway to hell” to slaughter facilities out of the country.

“My feelings are, there are a lot worse things in life than dying. All of my horses live a good life, right up to the end,” said South Dakota rancher Robert Dennis.

“Yeah, this is what happens when you take away horse slaughter plants in the U.S. Too bad, seems someone could have at least used the meat after they are dead; guess the coyotes and other scavengers will.”

In addition to Vlisak, copies of the IEBA letter and attending information were emailed out to members of the public. The email called upon concerned recipients to write letters of their own to Vilksak as well as to ask their senators to reject efforts like the Moran Amendment.

The Moran Amendment, submitted by Congressman Jim Moran, D-VA, to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Agriculture Appropriations Bill for the 2013 fiscal year, was passed by the House on June 19, 2012. It would again defund USDA inspection of horse processing plants and thereby functionally ban domestic horse slaughter: The amendment states:

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to pay the salaries or expenses of personnel to (1) inspect horses under section 3 of the Federal Meat Inspection Act; (2) inspect horses under section 903 of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996; or implement or enforce section 352.19 of title 9, Code of Federal Regulations [which provides for ante-mortem inspection of horses for slaughter].”

Most recent similar attempts by the House have been thwarted by the Senate which removed similar language from other fiscallyrelated documents.

About U.S. horse slaughter

Prior to the 2007 defunding of horse meat inspections and the effective banning of domestic horse slaughter, several plants existed to process horses. When the “ban” took place, the four remaining U.S. plants were all foreignowned. The horse meat generally went to foreign markets for human consumption, but there was (and is) some domestic demand from zoos feeding large predators.

Opposition to domestic horse slaughter for human consumption generally cites the practice as inappropriate considering the horse’s position in American culture and its modern role which is more pet than livestock to most. Other complaints against horse slaughter consider it inhumanely conducted and a danger to consumers considering the medications given to horses and a lack of standardized withdrawal procedures.

According to the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA), roughly 2 percent of the American horse population is slaughtered annually for consumption, both human and otherwise. It notes that that number has not decreased since 2007 but points out that horses are now transported long distances to Mexico and Canada.

The issue of horses transported out of the country likely destined for slaughter abroad is another issue which has received significant attention. Currently, horses bound for slaughter in other countries are protected by federal regulations while in the country. Efforts have been made to ban this as well, but even those efforts are unlikely to change current practices. AVMA points out horses being transported from the U.S. are often listed as riding, breeding or pleasure horses. Considering the number of horses so listed following 2007 increased dramatically, this is likely a way to sidestep efforts to ban transportation for slaughter.

According to its frequently asked questions on the topic, AVMA opposes bans on horse slaughter in that it opposes the elimination of any humane avenues addressing the issue of unwanted horses. However, in this case, being opposed to bans on horse slaughter is not the same thing as supporting it.

“We would prefer to see horse slaughter cease in the U.S. when and if there are NO MORE unwanted horses to justify its continued existence, but that’s not realistic at this time.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor