08:12 AM CST on Wednesday, February 15,
Ag chief's take on slaughter
He says law comes first; animal-rights groups sue over horse fees
By ALLEN PUSEY
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON - Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns denied Tuesday that his department tried to derail efforts to curb the slaughter of horses for meat. He said his department has simply been trying to deal with a legal quandary Congress created.
"We were all scratching our heads around here," Mr. Johanns said of legislation passed last year that cut off federal funding for legally required pre-slaughter horse inspections.
The action affected all three U.S. horse-meat plants: Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth and Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill.
Industry critics had hoped the move would shut down the $41 million-a-year industry that exports horse-meat to Europe, Japan and Mexico. Instead, the Agriculture Department agreed to let the industry pay to continue the inspections.
Mr. Johanns told reporters Tuesday that in allowing the fee-based system, his department was addressing a legal problem: The law still required the inspections, but Congress allotted no money to pay for them.
"On one hand, the legal mandate wasn't removed. On the other hand, the money was," Mr. Johanns said.
A legislative report regarding the budget limitation acknowledges that the Agriculture Department is "obliged" to inspect horse-meat for human consumption. Because pre-slaughter inspections are part of the process, the fee-based solution was all but suggested, Mr. Johanns said.
Even so, the department will have to defend its reasoning in court. The Humane Society and other animal-rights groups filed suit Tuesday in federal court in Washington to block the new fee-based system.
The suit charges that the department ignored Congress' intent, which it says was to end the slaughter of horses for human consumption and bypassed rule-making procedures to make an "end-run" around last year's legislation.
Mr. Johanns was asked whether Congress should simply outlaw horse slaughter for human consumption if that is its intention.
"I don't know what Congress will do. I know what we had to do," he said. "We had to deal with this issue."