US Capitol building
Animal welfare advocates plan to fight attempts to restore horse slaughter operations in the United States.
WASHINGTON – An amendment banning funds for horse slaughter inspectors failed to pass the House Appropriations Committee. Twenty-five committee members voted in favor of the amendment, while 27 members voted against.

Critics of the ban argued that current methods of controlling wild horse populations are insufficient, while others said that horses produced in the US are still slaughtered in other countries with less-rigorous humane handling standards and oversight.

But animal welfare advocates criticized the vote on concerns that horse slaughter operations could reopen in the United States. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (R-Ore.), an original co-sponsor of legislation to permanently ban horse slaughter, condemned the vote to overturn the ban.

“Why the Appropriations Committee would undermine years of precedent and protections for America’s horses makes absolutely no sense,” he said in statement. “Today’s vote is unconscionable. Congress has repeatedly banned inspections of horse meat processing facilities to make sure that horses are not slaughtered and consumed by people within our borders.

“While some members of the Appropriations Committee may think it’s their job to roll back these common-sense safeguards, there is a strong bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate who agrees with the American public that horse slaughter must end. This isn’t over, and we will look for opportunities to reinstate the ban as the appropriations process continues.”

Companies express interest

Congress banned horse slaughter in 2006 and the last horse slaughter plant in the US closed in 2007. But interest in horse slaughter persisted — in 2009 states like North Dakota and Montana considered legislation allowing horse slaughter. In 2011, Nebraska legislators considered a bill establishing a state meat inspection agency, which would pave the way for slaughter in the state.

That same year, the General Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ auditing arm, released a report that connected the ban on horse slaughter to an increase in abandoned horses, lower prices for some horses and a big increase in exports of horses for slaughter.

“Horse welfare in the US has generally declined since 2007, as evidenced by a reported increase in horse abandonments and an increase in investigations for horse abuse and neglect,” the GAO said in its report, Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter. “The extent of the decline is unknown due to a lack of comprehensive, national data, but state officials attributed the decline in horse welfare to many factors, but primarily to the cessation of domestic slaughter and the US economic downturn. Abandoned, abused, and neglected horses present challenges for state and local governments, tribes and animal welfare organizations.”

A few companies attempted to open horse slaughter operations. Responsible Transportation, planned to slaughter horses but changed course after a federal judge temporarily halted horse slaughter on an appeal by animal welfare groups. Valley Meat Co., Roswell, New Mexico, planned to convert the company's cattle plant into a horse slaughter facility, but the New Mexico Environment Dept. refused to grant the company owners a groundwater discharge permit. A facility planned in Missouri also never got off the ground.

Continuing the fight

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) spoke in favor of the amendment. She said that horses are raised as companion animals in the United States, and 80 percent of Americans “strongly oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption.”

Roybal-Allard called horse slaughter “economically draining” and a “public health nightmare” because drugs used to treat sick horses are toxic to humans, and there is no system in place to track which horses have been exposed to the drugs.

Finally, Roybal-Allard said humane slaughter of horses is very difficult because of the animals’ unique biology. “The horse’s long neck, the placement of its brain and its fight-or-flight response when frightened make it extremely difficult for the process of stunning which is used in slaughter procedures,” she said. Thus, horses endure repeated attempts at stunning and sometimes remain conscious during dismemberment, according to Roybal-Allard.

More-humane solutions to the current horse population problem include curbs on over-breeding of horses, owner education about re-homing options and expanding horse adoptions, she concluded.

In a blog posted to The Humane Society of the United States website, Wayne Pacelle said, “…If House leaders bring the agriculture spending bill to the floor, our congressional allies may be able to offer the amendment there and win when all House lawmakers have a chance to vote on the issue. And if even that doesn’t happen, we expect to win a horse slaughter defund amendment in the Senate, which would give us a chance to prevail when the final bill is negotiated and sent to President Trump.”