Dallas Morning News

Horse-slaughter industry in flux

Airlines won't carry meat, plants' status hazy after ban upheld

09:53 PM CST on Thursday, January 25, 2007

By JIM GETZ / The Dallas Morning News

A federal court decision that upheld a Texas ban on horse meat for human dining has thrown the horse-slaughter industry into flux, with two airlines saying they won't transport the meat and with representatives of Texas' two slaughter plants giving conflicting reports about whether they have temporarily ceased operations.

"My information now is that the plants are not processing at the moment," industry lobbyist Charles Stenholm said at 4:30 p.m. Thursday about the Beltex plant in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that if you can't ship the meat, you can't process it."

But 20 minutes later, Dallas Crown operator Christopher Soenen said the Kaufman plant was still operating. Dallas Crown attorney Mark Calabria then clarified, saying production would probably be reduced temporarily as the plant processes for pet food and zoo food only.

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It was just the latest example of how quickly reports about the industry were changing.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said early Thursday afternoon that they had suspended transport of horse meat to overseas markets mainly France, Belgium and Japan where it is consumed.

"We're not confident that it is legal to ship horse meat out of the state of Texas, so we're not accepting shipment," American spokesman Tim Wagner said.

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said the airline "has suspended shipment of this cargo, based on the recent ruling."

'A comfort level'

Asked whether the plants would try to persuade the airlines to change their minds or try to arrange shipment with other airlines, Mr. Stenholm said, "It is my belief that the airlines will soon reach a comfort level."

He said any disruption at the plants would be brief.

"I don't have a single doubt in my mind that the plants will be up and operating soon, whether that's tomorrow or Monday," he said, "and they will keep operating throughout the political and legal battles they're in."

David Broiles, an attorney for the two Texas plants, said he would ask the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans today to reconsider the ruling by one of its three-judge panels.

Mr. Broiles acknowledged that it was rare for the full court to overturn one of its panels' decisions. But if his request fails, he said, he will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Ann Diamond, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney who won the case before the Circuit Court, said an injunction preventing prosecution remains in place.

Mr. Stenholm, a former West Texas congressman, said the airlines were influenced by anti-slaughter groups such as the Humane Society of the United States.

"A lot of the folks on the other side have managed to stir up a lot of questions," he said. "Certainly, American Airlines did not want to do anything that was illegal. They were being told, by calls flooding into their office, that it was illegal to ship. That's inaccurate information."

Mr. Wagner said American did not base its decision on phone calls. "We have to make our decision based on our understanding of the court case," he said, "not someone else's interpretation."

Mr. Stenholm said that the appeals court decision created uncertainty in every business, from horse auctions to the airlines, but that he believes Mr. Broiles' decision to fight to the Supreme Court if necessary would stabilize the horse industry.

"It's just a matter of hours before things are back to normal," he said.

Industry spokesman David Sheon agreed. "I think it would be more fair to describe that as a hiccup, not a major disruption," he said.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, praised the airlines' decision.

"The court's decision was unambiguous, and the judges stated that horse slaughter is illegal in Texas for human consumption," he said. "The airlines have an obligation to follow the dictates of a U.S. Court of Appeals."

Beltex employs about 90 people and has annual sales of $35 million, according to its most recent report. Dallas Crown employs about 40 workers and has annual sales of about $8.8 million. Both are foreign-owned. The only other U.S. horse-slaughter plant, Cavel International of DeKalb, Ill., is not affected because the ruling concerned Texas law.

Plan B

Mr. Calabria, the Dallas Crown attorney, said he understood that the Texas plants were reviewing all their options. Those include moving to other states, Mexico or Canada, or possibly staying put and expanding the types of meat they process to compensate for the loss of horses.

Even if horse meat for humans is declared legal in Texas, Mr. Calabria said, the company faces a battle against the city of Kaufman, which has ordered the Dallas Crown plant shut down for violating zoning laws.

Congress is considering a nationwide ban on horse slaughter. But, in what Mr. Sheon called a "rare, if not unprecedented move," the Republican and Democratic heads of two committees in the House Agriculture, and Energy and Commerce issued a bipartisan letter Thursday urging fellow members not to vote for a ban.