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On the Brink

Stopping horse slaughter grows more urgent as plants gear up to reopen.

Humane Activist magazine, July/August 2013

In early 2011, Darby was just another “worthless” animal, on his way to slaughter. The young gray gelding had been a promising show horse, until his owners used harsh bits, spurs, whips, and beatings to prepare him for the ring. The more they tried to force him, the more he refused. Eventually, in the eyes of his owners, Darby’s value dropped to $400—the meat market price at the time—and they traded him to a trainer, expecting the horse would be auctioned off to a kill buyer.

Instead, that trainer called Last Chance Ranch, a rescue in Quakertown, Pa. After a six-month break and three weeks of training, Darby joined the newly revived mounted unit of the Philadelphia police. Now, he helps with crowd control and patrols city streets. As the only gray horse in the group, Darby stands out. “They love him,” says Lori McCutcheon, president and founder of Last Chance Ranch. “He’s one of their stars.”

This spring, Darby and another rescue horse in the mounted unit served as the backdrop for a press conference in Philadelphia supporting a new federal bill to stop the slaughter of American horses.

Introduced in March with bipartisan support, the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act would ban the export of horses to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses as well as the slaughter of horses within the United States, which is poised to resume within months after a six-year hiatus. In Roswell, N.M., the Valley Meat Company has had its USDA walk-through inspection and is giving visitors tours, says Holly Gann, manager of The HSUS’s campaign to end horse slaughter. “The building’s there, they’re ready to go,” she says. The expected reopening of the plant and a recent horsemeat scandal in Europe now bring an added urgency to the issue.

166,000 American horses are sent to slaughter in Canada and Mexico every year.

Horse slaughter in the United States ceased in 2007 after Congress eliminated funding for USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants. But American horses—unwanted or stolen pets, failed show horses, retired racers—are still trucked to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Their meat, not eaten in the United States, is sold to buyers in Europe and Japan.

But because they are not raised for food, horses in the U.S. are given a variety of drugs— an HSUS legal petition lists 115—that pose health risks for humans if consumed. “Horses are pets; they are our companions in work and sport,” says Gann. “And they are exposed to a whole range of legal and illegal substances that can make their meat toxic to humans.”

Disturbing news from Europe highlighted in dramatic fashion how easily these substances can enter the food supply: Horsemeat was discovered in products sold as beef, and a common painkiller called “bute” (phenylbutazone)—which is banned in Europe and the United States in animals raised for food—was found in several shipments of horsemeat. Supporters of horse slaughter, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council, say the 166,000 U.S. horses currently killed for meat each year are old and sick with no other options. Opponents counter that the majority of these animals are young, healthy horses who could serve as companions, therapy animals—or partners in law enforcement. Also, whether horses are slaughtered here or abroad, the industry is inhumane. Horses suffer when crowded onto big transport trucks, and their disposition makes them impossible to slaughter humanely—as flight animals they cannot be reliably stunned before they are killed. Public opinion is with the opponents: Eighty percent of Americans surveyed say they oppose horse slaughter.

But in 2011 a stopgap measure that had blocked horse slaughter in the United States failed to win renewal. After annually cutting USDA horse slaughter inspection money from the federal budget, Congress passed a spending plan that did not specifically remove it, paving the way for the reopening of horse slaughter plants in this country. Valley Meat sued the USDA to speed up the process, prompting objections from New Mexico's governor, members of the state's congressional delegation, and the state attorney general, who said that under state law drug-tainted horsemeat is an adulterated product and cannot be manufactured there.

Five plants in other states have applied for USDA permits to slaughter horses. If the USDA grants them, horsemeat could be sold in the United States, potentially putting American consumers at risk.

Enter the SAFE Act. The recent spotlight on the public health threat gives horse slaughter opponents their best chance in years of instituting a ban here, says Jessica Feingold-Lieberson, legislative specialist for The HSUS. “Now is more likely than any other time. [Currently] we don’t process horsemeat, but if we start, what’s to protect our food?” The Obama Administration's proposed 2014 budget includes a measure that would once more eliminate funding for USDA inspections. If the cut is adopted by Congress, it would shut down Valley Meat and other plants that might reopen. Passage of the SAFE Act would ensure they stay closed.

Re-printed from the July/August 2013 issue of Humane Activist, the full-color bimonthly membership magazine of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. To become a member and receive a one-year subscription to Humane Activist, simply make a donation at the $10 level or higher.