Horse-meat export fight resumes in Texas
It may take the nation's top court to settle emotional, economic battle

After hearing of reports several years ago that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had been slaughtered for food in Japan, legions of American horse lovers were outraged.

The famed racehorse's death also fanned a battle that was renewed this month in the Texas Legislature and could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not everyone in Texas is opposed to killing horses for food. State Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, has introduced a bill legalizing the export of horse meat from Texas for consumption in countries such as France and Belgium, where it is considered a delicacy.

Miller's filing came after a March 6 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not to reconsider its own January ruling in which it upheld a 1949 Texas law banning the slaughter of horses in the state for human consumption anywhere.

"Horses to some people are pets," said Miller, a horse breeder, rancher and House Agriculture and Livestock Committee chairman. "I have horses that are pets, and I would never, ever send them to a livestock auction where I thought they might be sold for human consumption."

But, he said, he also has brood mares that he considers simply livestock.

"Their sole purpose is to produce income for me," Miller said. "So I wouldn't have any trepidation about sending those horses to an auction because they're not pets."

Submitted bids

Houstonian Sally Stellberg stables three horses in Spring Branch. She bid against slaughterhouse buyers for two Joe, 8, and Twinky, a retired racing quarter horse who was 16 when rescued.

Stellberg opposes all horse slaughter and said she finds slaughter for human consumption particularly abhorrent.

"America was built on the back of the horse," she said. "It's just terribly disrespectful to have their lives end up like that."

In 2002, three plants in the United States Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth, Dallas Crown Inc. in Kaufman and a facility in DeKalb, Ill. sold horse meat for dinner tables abroad.

After the Texas Attorney General's Office issued a 2002 opinion on the 1949 state statute, the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office told Beltex that exporting horse meat for human consumption was illegal, according to Assistant District Attorney Ann Diamond.

Beltex and Dallas Crown ceased slaughtering horses for consumption Jan. 19, the day the 5th Circuit ruling came down, said Fort Worth attorney David Broiles, who represents the companies and plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision. The ruling did not affect the Illinois plant.

"Last year, the three (plants) together slaughtered a little over 100,000 horses," said Chris Heyde of the Washington, D.C.-based Society for Animal Protective Legislation and executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition. "They peaked in the high 300,000s in the early '90s."

Heyde said France, Italy and Belgium are the main consumers of horse meat. The Japanese also eat a considerable amount but import live horses for that purpose.

In 2003, Miller supported a bill to legalize the export of horse meat to foreign nations for human consumption. The legislation passed in the House but not in the Senate. So emotional was the issue that some lawmakers received death threats, and state troopers were posted at their offices for a time, Miller said.

Though they say they prefer long-term care for old horses, the 9,000-member American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association say in Internet statements that the large number of "unwanted horses," estimated at 80,000, makes slaughter at factories a necessary part of solving the problem.

The groups say making such slaughter legal would prevent neglect, abuse or abandonment of old horses by people who can't or won't care for them.

Slaughter opponents say California's 1998 ban on horse slaughter for human consumption did not lead to more abuse or other problems.

Houston a horse mecca

The AAEP and AVMA agree that human consumption of horse meat is "a cultural and personal issue" that is not within their purview. They say their main concern is the health and welfare of the animals while they're alive.

Miller's differentiation between pet horses and income-producing horses is out of style, said Steven Long, editor of the Houston-based magazine Texas Horse Talk.

"You just can't look at horses as livestock anymore. We never did eat them," said Long, adding that studies by Texas A&M University show that the Houston area boasts the highest concentration of horses among the nation's large urban areas.

When Miller and others introduced their 2003 bill to legalize horse slaughter, polls sponsored by anti-slaughter forces showed that 89 percent of Texans were unaware horses were being killed for human consumption and 72 percent opposed the practice.

Although most people following the case are worried about horses, Broiles says the real issue concerns interstate commerce.

The 1949 Texas law also makes it illegal to transport meat intended for human consumption through the state.

"You can manufacture a product legally in New Mexico, but if Texas decides that it doesn't want you to have that product in Texas, then you have to drive it around Texas to get it somewhere," Broiles said.

kevin.moran@chron.com