USDA may keep authority over horse slaughter
Law governing meat inspection could override ban Congress backed
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to use what some are calling a loophole to continue to allow horse slaughtering in the United States for the exportation of meat, overriding a bill President Bush signed last year.
The Texas facilities, which are foreign-owned, are Dallas Crown in Kaufman, a small town southeast of Dallas, and Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth. The other plant is Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill.
The issue of slaughtering horses for meat has galvanized animal rights groups, some horse associations and others who have tried for at least three years to pass an outright ban on the horse-meat trade.
Congress got at the issue by stripping funding for the federal inspection of horse meat. Because all exported meat must be inspected, the provision was intended to end the exportation of the horse product.
But after reviewing the law, the Agriculture Department said Tuesday that it continues under the Federal Meat Inspection Act to have responsibility for inspecting all animals for slaughter.
The agency proposes that slaughtering facilities be allowed to apply and pay for inspections rather than have the inspections funded by the government.
The proposal is open for written comment until March 9; the agency could put the plan into effect the next day.
The development resurrected a highly emotional debate for lawmakers who have pushed to end the slaughtering, which supplies Asian and European countries that consider the flesh a delicacy.
"USDA never intended to honor the intent of Congress to block funds for inspection of horses to be slaughtered," said Rep. John Sweeney, a Republican who represents the horse-racing areas around Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Instead, commerce and greed have ruled the day."
Chris Heyde, executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition, said, "It is baffling as to why they are so disrespectful of the law. The last time I read the Constitution, that is not what they are supposed to be doing."
For the horse-meat plants, though, the news is terrific, said former Democratic Rep. Charlie Stenholm of West Texas, a lobbyist recently hired to represent the horse-processing plants.
"Those of us who believe that the processing of horses is a legitimate business and who support the right of horse owners to send their horses for humane euthanization are very glad that the department has issued these regulations," Stenholm said.
The companies argued that the provision would have killed their $41 million industry and eliminated much-needed local jobs.
Beltex employs about 110 workers and is owned by Danish and Belgian shareholders. Dallas Crown is a Belgian-owned company with about 60 employees in Texas.
The inspections would cost the processing plants about $6 per animal, according to Stenholm.
Eighteen Texans in the House voted against the ban last summer, including GOP Reps. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and John Culberson of Houston. Thirteen voted for it, including Houston Democrats Al Green and Gene Green and Republicans Ted Poe of Houston and Michael McCaul of Austin; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, did not vote.
Of the two Texas Republicans in the Senate, John Cornyn opposed the ban, and Kay Bailey Hutchison backed it.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, a San Antonio Republican who chairs the House spending committee that controls the USDA budget and was among the most powerful opponents of the ban, had no comment on the announcement Tuesday.
About 85,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. last year at USDA-approved plants, down from previous years.