Recently, the US Dept. of Agriculture granted federal inspection to Responsible Transportation LLC, a slaughter plant based in Sigourney, Iowa, for the purpose of slaughtering horses. The inspection agency’s action comes on the heels of a grant of inspection for horse slaughter for Valley Meat Co., in Roswell, NM. It is expected a grant of inspection will also be made to a similar plant in Missouri. If approved, horse slaughter would take place in the US for the first time in six years.

The USDA’s actions could very well have repercussions for the entire meat industry, despite the fact there was no way the USDA could have avoided issuing the grants of inspection. Meanwhile, animal-rights groups are not sitting by idly. Led by The Humane Society of the United States, four other groups and five individuals have filed a lawsuit against USDA to stop the agency from carrying out the inspections of horses slaughtered at those companies.

For years, the slaughter of horses wasn’t much of an issue in the US because Congress had banned the practice. This was done by not allowing payment for the practice. The reasoning was based on the idea that unlike some parts of the world, the US is not a horse-eating society.

However, a few years ago, Congress lifted the ban on funding the inspection of horse slaughter. Recently, members of Congress took another approach by introducing legislation to stop the export of horse meat and meat products outside the US, and by making the consumption of horse meat illegal in the US. There’s also a stipulation in the 2014 federal budget to stop the inspection of horse meat.

Arguments against

The animal rights groups have based their arguments on the love affair Americans have had with horses, dating back to connections horses have to cowboys and the Old West, other romantic aspects of American life – and the fact that for the most part, horses haven’t been eaten in the US.

The opposition to horse slaughter here is based more on psychological factors, while the actual attempts to prevent it are centered on paying or not paying for the federal inspection.

Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico objected to horse slaughter taking place in her state, while the Iowa-based company said allowing horse slaughter and inspection in the US would be kinder to horses by preventing the travel they would have to endure to other countries to be slaughtered.

USDA has tried to deflect some of the attention on the issue by saying plants would have to comply with the laws and regulations bearing on animal slaughter, including HACCP, Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. USDA has also said because horse carcasses would be involved, the agency will take steps to ensure there will be no illegal drug residues in the carcasses. In other words, it would take steps to ensure inspection is carried out the same for horses as for other species.

Unfortunately, the issue of horse slaughter and the controversy surrounding it puts more negative focus, even if indirect, on an industry that doesn’t want or need it. While the industry has to spend time, money and public relations efforts on different issues surrounding slaughter and processing – including incidents of whether animals to be slaughtered are always treated humanely and the question of factory farming – the introduction of slaughter and processing of horses for their meat is an issue industry really doesn’t need to deal with, if it can possibly avoid it. Meat from horses is not even going to be consumed in the US, but the slaughter would take place here. With thousands of plants in the US successfully processing meat and poultry, three small plants slaughtering horses will focus a lot of attention on a controversy the industry could easily live without.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant for Shire & Associates LLC.