Horse processing plants get the green light from USDA
A long battle in the equine industry appeared to have come to a close with some celebrations surrounding the announcement that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) gave the first green light to equine processing to Valley Meats of Roswell, NM.
Just four days later, the U.S. government also approved a horse slaughter plant in Iowa, but at the same time, it renewed its appeal to Congress to ban the business. In a statement, USDA said it was required by law to issue a “grant of inspection” to Responsible
Transportation, of Sigourney, in southeastern Iowa, because it met all federal requirements. USDA will also be obliged to assign meat inspectors to the plants. A plant in Missouri was expected to also get the green light before the week was over.
“The U.S. horse industry owes a huge debt of gratitude to Valley Meats and the De Los Santos family,” says Sue Wallis, Wyoming state representative and U.S. chairman of the International Equine Business Association (IE- BA). “Without their determination and courage to stand up to vicious abuse from animal activist groups led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the entire horse world would be facing the continued devastation of the horse market, horrific environmental degradation of rangelands due to the absence of a humane option for excess horses, the unacceptable decline in overall horse welfare as the result of radical action that deprives otherwise unwanted and unneeded horses of their intrinsic worth...not to mention depriving the rich, cultural and traditional use of horse meat in the cuisines of ethnic groups, and health and value conscious consumers both here and abroad.”
Wallis continues, “For the majority of people who are in the horse business, who actually make some part of their living by raising, training, or otherwise using horses for the benefit of themselves, their families, and communities, this welcome news is long in coming. Finally, we can look forward to a positive outcome where every horse has value, is treated humanely from birth to death. When their highest, best use is to be turned into food for a very willing and eager market, horse people generally agree that is best accomplished in small stateof-the-art facilities, such as Valley Meats, that are designed for the purpose, manned by trained professionals, under the watchful and rigorous inspection of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service for both food safety and humane handling. IEBA members have instituted systems that go far beyond FSIS requirements to ensure that no contaminated cheval (horse meat) ever enters the food system, and that all horses are treated right at every point.”
Obviously a controversial debate, those against horse slaughter are furious and sharing their opposition. “Moving ahead with the costly proposition of funding horse slaughter inspections is wasteful, cruel and reckless,” says Nancy Perry, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Perry goes on to cite a poll that she says shows that that 70 percent of New Mexicans, 70 percent of Missourians and 71 percent of Iowans oppose the slaughter of U.S. horses for human consumption.
And it’s this opposition that has the New Mexico processor holding off on their celebration. Before the plant could even come close to opening, HSUS filed a lawsuit in court. In addition, there are two bills in Congress aimed at banning horse slaughter, and to date, President Obama has not been supportive of horse slaughter.
“This is very far from over,” Valley Meats attorney Blair Dunn told reporters. “The company is going to plan to begin operating in July. But with the potential lawsuits and the USDA—they have been dragging their feet for a year—so to now believe they are going to start supplying inspectors, we’re not going to hold our breath.”
HSUS, Front Range Equine Rescue, Marin Humane Society, Horses for Life Foundation, Return to Freedom and five private individuals filed a lawsuit last Tuesday, under the National Environmental Protection Act, claiming the agency failed to conduct the necessary environmental review before authorizing horse slaughterhouses to operate.
The 36-page petition to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleges USDA did not prepare required environmental reviews for Valley Meat Co.’s horse meat plant or for any of the pending requests. The lawsuit cites several negative environmental consequences, including air and water pollution.
Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at HSUS, claims that not only are the plants inhumane to the horses, the slaughter plants pollute local water with blood and offal run off, and deplete property values because of the smell.
Hilary Wood, president of Front Range Equine Rescue, said, “The USDA has failed to consider the basic fact that horses are not raised as a food animal. Horse owners provide their horses with a number of substances dangerous to human health. To blatantly ignore this fact jeopardizes human health as well as the environment surrounding a horse slaughter plant. The negative consequences of horse slaughter will be felt immediately and over the long term if allowed to resume in the U.S. America’s horses are not food.”
But other groups are standing strong on the need for U.S. horse slaughter, including the New Mexico Horse Council (NMHC).
The council, which represents more than 200 horse owners and 30 horse clubs, sent the governor a letter saying an informal survey of its members showed 94 percent favor humane slaughter.
“Horses deserve better than to be abandoned, starved, or transported long distances in overcrowded trucks to slaughter in foreign countries,” the letter from NMHC President Rusty Cook said, noting rescue facilities are unable to care for all the unwanted horses.
California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas ban horse slaughter while Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Oregon have all recently acted to open up slaughter facilities.
According to USDA, FSIS was required by law to issue the grant of inspection because Valley Meat met all federal requirements. Roswell Meats had recently sued USDA for an overly long review of its application. Once FSIS issues a grant of inspection, USDA is required to assign meat inspectors to a meat plant.
“Until Congress acts, the department must comply with current law,” said a USDA spokeswoman.
The Obama administration’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would reinstate the ban. And both the House and Senate agriculture committees have endorsed proposals in the agriculture appropriations bill that could cut the funding, if one is ever agreed upon.
Under the current law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) requires federal inspection of amenable species when slaughtered for human food and prepared for commerce, according to an FSIS update. Horses, mules, and other equines are among the livestock species that are amenable under FMIA.
Beginning in fiscal year (FY) 2006, Congress prohibited the use of federal funds to pay the salaries and expenses of equine slaughter inspections. Without inspection, no horse meat is eligible for the FSIS mark of inspection, and without the mark, no horse meat can move in commerce. The prohibition continued from 2007 to 2011, with the demise of all U.S. equine slaughterhouses.
However, Congress has not continued this prohibition and did not include it for the use of appropriated funds in the FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Act.
In the FSIS update, released June 28, FSIS said it would ensure compliance with relevant statutes and regulations. The agency also gave reassurance that U.S. consumers “should not be concerned that horse meat will be labeled and sold as the meat of another species” because of FSIS’ stringent inspections, testing and labeling requirements.
“Among other measures to protect the public health, FSIS will test equine carcasses for illegal drug residues,” the update said. “Because of the particular concerns about the possibility of drug residues in equine carcasses, FSIS will conduct intensified residue testing at establishments that receive a grant of inspection to slaughter equines.
“Under this framework, inspection program personnel will tag equines that appear unhealthy or have visible needle puncture marks as ‘US Suspect’ and perform inspector-generated testing,” the update added. “In addition, FSIS inspection program personnel will randomly select and sample a number of carcasses from every lot of equines that pass antemortem inspection. The rate at which we will randomly select carcasses for sampling will be above our normal rate until we have significant experience with equine slaughter.”
U.S. law prohibits horse processing in the same facility as other species.
FSIS has issued instructions to inspection program personnel on inspection of equines in FSIS Directive 6130.1, available at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/horses/6130.1.pdf.
FSIS has modified several Chemistry Laboratory Guidebook Methods to add equine muscle. To review the revisions to the guidebook, visit http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/science/laboratories-and-procedures/guidebooks-and-methods/chemistry-laboratoryguidebook.
More information on FSIS’ inspection of equine slaughter can be found at http:// www.fsis.usda.gov/horses/horses.html. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor