House Considers Horse Slaughter Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, September 5, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Thursday on a bill that aims to ban the domestic slaughter of horses for human consumption. The legislation has evoked passionate support from animal rights advocates, but farm organizations and some veterinary groups contend the bill would do far more harm than good.

Few Americans consume horsemeat, but there are several foreign nations - including France, Italy, Belgium and Japan - where horsemeat is popular and considered a ready alternative to beef.

Three foreign-owned plants in the United States currently process horsemeat. Last year more than 90,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States and exported for human consumption - thousands more are shipped live to Canada and butchered there for human consumption abroad.

The United States exported some 18,000 metric tons of horsemeat valued at about $61 million in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

A recent CRS report noted that U.S. horse slaughter has been rising since 2002, but remains below levels of the 1980s when more than 300,000 horses were processed annually at 16 federally inspected plants.

The pending bill calls for amending the Horse Protection Act to prohibit shipping, possessing, purchasing, selling or donating horses for slaughter for human consumption.

But the bill lawmakers will consider this week is a far cry from the original measure. The House Agriculture Committee significantly altered the bill in July, adding amendments that in effect make the bill a pilot program for Kentucky and New York. The three current plants would be able to continue operating under the bill and the USDA would be required to reimburse horse owners for any costs related to a ban, including euthanasia and disposal as well as to for dealing with unwanted horses. Furthermore, the bill also exempts the slaughter of horses for food for charitable and humanitarian purposes. horse

Polls have shown many Americans are opposed to eating horses and supportive of the proposed ban. (Photo by Ken Hammond USDA)
House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican called the measure "woefully inadequate" and "emotionally misguided."

After amending the bill, the committee reported it out of committee with the recommendation that the full House reject the measure. In a surprise move, Republican leaders agree to schedule a vote on the measure this Thursday.

It is unclear which way the vote will go - the legislation has more than 200 cosponsors and last year the House voted 269-158 in favor of a ban.

At a rally Tuesday, bill cosponsor Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, urged colleagues to pass the legislation.

"Although the majority of people in America clearly support federal legislation to prohibit horse slaughter, it has been particularly difficult to overcome the opposition of a few congressional leaders," Whitfield said. "We must not squander our opportunity to pass [the bill] on September 7."

Proponents contend horses must be shipped long distances to slaughter and are often mistreated.

"Killing horses for export for human consumption is unnecessary and inhumane, and it is long overdue that the Congress put an end to this practice," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, who joined Whitfield and other supporters at the rally. "It is hard to believe that the slaughter industry and its paid lobbyists can keep a straight face when they make the argument that they are helping horses by transporting them in cattle trucks, prodding them on to the kill floor, and then slaughtering them."

The bill was introduced in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to ignore the provision passed last year by Congress that aimed to end the U.S. horsemeat trade. Language inserted into the USDA's fiscal year 2006 budget prohibited the use of funds to pay for federal inspections of horses prior to slaughter. Such inspections, carried out by the USDA's Food Inspection and Safety Service (FSIS) are required for the legal slaughter of horses and for export of horsemeat.

But last spring the USDA announced that it had accepted a petition by the three U.S. slaughterhouses - two in Texas and one in Illinois - to pay for inspections on a per-fee basis.

Advocates of the ban filed suit, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the USDA.

Critics of the bill say it ignores the realities facing farmers and horse owners across the nation.

The slaughter of unwanted horses is a necessary aspect of the horse industry and provides a humane alternative to suffering, abuse or abandonment, according to a coalition of more than 140 farm and veterinary groups who oppose the legislation.

"Preventing the slaughter of horses does nothing but increase the economic strain on families who can no longer afford to care for them, stretch already thin budgets at rescue facilities, and increase the chances that horses will suffer as they become unwanted or old," said Representative Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat.

The coalition of organizations against the bill includes the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, which is the world's largest professional association of horse veterinarians.

But there are several horse groups on the other side of the fence. The National Show Horse Registry, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Steeplechase Association, and Churchill Downs have all come out in support of the ban.

Even if the House approves the measure, it faces an uncertain future given the limited number of days left in the Congressional session. The Senate has a different version of the legislation and both houses would have to iron out differences before a final bill could be sent to the White House.