KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Proponents of humane horse slaughter are making some headway toward rebuilding the industry in the United States while facing fierce opposition from activist groups, according to Jennifer Woods, a livestock handling specialist from Blackie, Alberta. Woods was a guest speaker at the AMI Foundation's Animal Care & Handling Conference held recently in Kansas City, Mo.
After Congress lifted the five-year-old ban on horse meat inspections, interest in horse slaughter and processing horse meat began to increase. Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota were among a few states where legislatures were considering legislation that would allow horse slaughter. Woods said there are three plants — one each in Iowa, Missouri and New Mexico — that have the best chance of opening soon.
“This has not been easy,” she said. “They have been chased out; not all areas welcome them, but we do have three secure plants in place right now.”
In 2006, horse slaughter opponents successfully pushed through a measure eliminating funding for horse-meat inspections effectively ending the practice in the US. Woods said severe droughts hit the US soon after the plants shut down. People could not afford to feed horses and owners began to abandon animals. The Government Accountability Office released a report in June 2011 titled Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter. The report connected the ban on horse slaughter to an upswing in abandoned horses, a drop in prices for some horses and a sharp increase in exports of horses for slaughter.
As a result the tide against horse slaughter has started to shift, Woods said.
Roughly one billion people, or 16 percent of the global population, consume horse meat, according to Woods. Besides its health attributes, horse meat is ideal for commercial sale for other reasons.
“Horses are also very unique — they don’t have a shelf life,” Woods said. “Feedlot cattle expire— you need to slaughter them at a certain point. Horses can hang out in a feedlot for years.”
Horse meat is also a significant source of food for zoo animals, Woods added. When horse slaughter was banned in the US, zoo facilities were impacted because horses were the food source for big cats and bears.
Trade in horsemeat is financially attractive. A high-end horse breed can have an end value of up to $20,000 in Asian markets. Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Netherlands, Brazil, Uruguay, Mongolia are some of the top exporters of the protein, according to Woods.
The province of Alberta has two horse slaughter facilities, one of which processes approximately 50,000 horses annually. Canada also exports horses live-on-hoof to markets in Asia.
The International Equine Business Association is developing a quality assurance program that will include traceability of drug residues and carcasses. Video monitoring, internal and external animal welfare audits are in the works. Also, a “Do Not Slaughter” register has been proposed that would rely on microchip technology to track and identify horses. Animal shelters and pet owners use the technology to locate lost cats and dogs, for example.
“People can scan that chip and the owner can be contacted if the animal is in the registry,” Woods said.
Although supporters of humane horse slaughter have made progress toward rebuilding the industry in the US, questions remain as to the possibility that tactics activists use to shut down horse slaughter in US could lay the groundwork for legislation effecting slaughter of other species. The meat industry should beware, Woods said.
“Is this a battle we want to spend money and time on?” she said.