COLUMN: Horse slaughter still haunts industry
Oct. 13, 2016
by Bernard Shire
Since it’s October, there’s nothing wrong with a little talk about haunting. As far as the meat industry is concerned, one issue that still haunts the industry is horse slaughter.
But there’s no horse slaughter in the United States anymore, many might say. The few remaining horse slaughter plants in the US were put out of business by the federal government, including the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). So what’s that got to do with US food production?
Two years ago, there was an attempt to resume commercial horse slaughter in the US, but it was blocked when President Obama signed a budget measure withholding money for required federal inspections of the slaughtering process. At the time, the measure actually provided temporary funding for the federal government. But it stopped the USDA from spending money for inspections necessary to slaughterhouses to ship horse meat across state lines, and eventually export it to overseas consumers. The President’s action came as a judge stopped a New Mexico company from moving forward with plans to start slaughtering horses.
Actually the last slaughterhouse in the US had closed back in 2007, a year after Congress withheld inspection funding from USDA. But federal money was restored four years later, with three plants in New Mexico, Missouri and Iowa trying to start horse slaughtering. They failed, and a lawsuit by the New Mexico attorney general contended the plant trying to start up in New Mexico would violate the state’s environmental and food safety laws.
Last year, a bipartisan group of US Senators introduced a bill in Congress to ban horse slaughter. Horse slaughter is currently banned by an amendment included in the federal government funding package. But the prohibition of funding for horse inspection only runs from year to year.
Horses have been consumed by human beings for food for thousands of years. But there is no doubt that a heavy majority of the American public is strongly opposed to horse slaughter, for various reasons. One thing consumers may not be aware of is that American horses, used in races and other activities, are treated with drugs that aren’t approved for use in animals intended for consumption by humans.
There is also a strong feeling among Americans that like dogs and cats, horses are companion animals and should not be used for food. Many people think horses are deserving of more humane consideration, because Americans see them as working animals, or used for sport – horse racing – and because they are not bred or raised for food here. When horses were slaughtered here, about 90 percent of the meat was exported for human consumption overseas, with the remaining 10 percent going to zoos to feed big cat carnivores, like lions and tigers. Horse meat was outlawed in pet food in the 1970s.
American consumers these days have a lot of concerns and a great deal of interest in where their food is coming from, and how it gets to groceries and markets. There’s a lot of attention focused on animals – both food animals, and companion animals – and how they’re treated. And while horses aren’t part of the slaughter picture in the US, there is concern right now about large numbers of American horses – 130,000 each year – being shipped to Mexico, Canada and other countries for slaughter. Even when American horse slaughterhouses were still operating years ago, large numbers of horses were shipped across our borders to be slaughtered elsewhere. Animal welfare groups are pushing Congress to enact the Safeguard American Food Exports Act before it adjourns its session. This is legislation to enact a permanent ban on horse slaughter, and prohibit American horses being exported to other countries for that purpose. This is not new legislation.
And while the meat industry won’t be involved in getting this legislation passed, meat and poultry slaughterhouses and processors should probably quietly hope that it does get passed. The meat industry has enough on its hands PR-wise without having continuous controversy about slaughter, even if it’s not slaughter directly tied to the American meat industry. Totally banning horse slaughter will remove many negative associations clinging to the meat industry, feelings that may exist even among people who enjoy a good steak.