Ag Weekly Online


Horse slaughterhouses begin paying for inspections

FORT WORTH, Texas --The nation's three horse-processing plants on Friday began paying federal employees $43.64 an hour to conduct pre-slaughter inspections as required in a new federal law, whose original intent was to end commercial equine slaughter.

The resulting horse meat -- much of which will be exported to West Europe with a small percentage shipped to U.S. zoos for large-cat rations -- will be inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture workers at government expense as before.

The pre-slaughter inspections are expected to cost Beltex of Fort Worth; Dallas Crown of Kaufman, Texas, and Cavel International of Dekalb, Ill., $22,000 to $36,000 each for the life of the law, about six months. With a reported $29 million in annual foreign sales, the expense is seen as minimal for the three companies, which are all Belgian-owned.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., who sponsored the original provision, was incensed when congressional leaders rewrote his legislation, and he ended up voting against the final bill, said spokeswoman Melissa Carlson.

The slaughter plants interpreted the new language as allowing fee-for-service inspections, as has long been done for such exotic species as bison and ostrich, and petitioned the Agriculture Department, which agreed to provide them at the plants' expense.

Meanwhile, slaughter opponents sent 10 pickup trucks pulling empty horse trailers -- symbolizing animals gone to slaughter -- from New Hampshire to Washington.

They also requested that the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia issue a temporary restraining order preventing the fee-for-service program, arguing that it was the intent of Congress to stop horse slaughter.

The court has yet to take any action.

"We are sitting around anxiously awaiting a decision from the judge," said Chris Heyde, a lobbyist with the Society for Animal Protective Legislation. "We are obviously disappointed by the USDA's action. The language was clear. But the amendment also was not the ultimate goal. It would have stopped horse slaughter only a short time."

Anti-horse slaughter activists have long enjoyed the support of such animal-welfare groups as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Protection of Animals, and have garnered publicity by enlisting such celebrities as Bo Derek, Whoopi Goldberg, Morgan Freeman, Viggo Mortensen and Mira Sorvino.

But in the past month, the three outgunned horse-meat suppliers have ratcheted up their low-key lobbying effort, hiring former Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Texas Democrat had been a powerful member of the House Agriculture Committee, and signing on a Washington-based public-relations and lobbying firm, SciWords.

"Many horse owners absolutely oppose horse slaughter," Stenholm said. "And I agree with them -- on their horse. The fundamental issue involved is that the horse owner makes the choice. It's always been a property-rights issue."

SciWords stresses that 64 organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, support horse slaughter as a practical option for unwanted horses.

They note that horses are processed in the same manner as cattle.

Sweeney will once again propose an outright ban on horse slaughter, Carlson said. He will no longer try to get the bill through the House Agriculture Committee, where past attempts failed, but will try another committee, she said.

(c) 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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