Government accused of trying to bypass horse-slaughter law

Meatpackers in Texas, Illinois petition to pay inspectors themselves

07:33 PM CST on Tuesday, January 10, 2006

By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON The Bush administration is trying to end-run Congress and circumvent a new law designed to halt the slaughter of horses at meatpacking plants in North Texas and Illinois, congressional sponsors and animal-protection groups charge.

A measure signed into law last November by President Bush bars the Agriculture Department, effective March 10, from paying for inspections of horses before slaughter. Since federal law requires pre-slaughter inspection of cattle and other livestock, congressional sponsors say they clearly intended to end the slaughter of horses in the U.S.

But the nation's three horsemeat plants in Kaufman, Fort Worth and DeKalb, Ill. may have found a loophole to keep their $41 million-a-year industry alive. They are offering to pay the inspectors' salaries under a fee-for-services system used for elk, reindeer, rabbits and other more exotic fare.

"We are fighting to save our business," said Jim Bradshaw, a lobbyist who represents Dallas Crown Inc. in Kaufman and Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth. "That's natural."

The Agriculture Department is weighing the companies' proposal, made in a Nov. 23 petition that urges swift adoption of the plan without soliciting public input. Failure to do so would probably force the slaughterhouses out of operation, "causing substantial economic damage contrary to the public good," the companies said.

In a Dec. 21 letter to several members of Congress, the department's acting general counsel said the new law doesn't thwart the government's ability to provide inspectors.

"In fact," counsel James Michel Kelly wrote, the law "does not prevent horse slaughter at all."

That stance is rejected by the Humane Society of the United States, other animal welfare groups and the law's congressional sponsors.

"This agency is bending over backwards to accommodate an industry that Congress and the American people want shut down," said Nancy Perry, the Humane Society's vice president for government affairs. "There is far too much concern about perpetuating horse slaughter on the part of USDA."

Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican at the center of the effort to end the horse meat trade, agreed.

"It's disappointing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has adopted this culture over there that they do not want to stop the slaughtering of horses and they want to continue to protect these French-owned and Belgian-owned companies," he said Tuesday.

He and others in Congress are working for a permanent ban on the annual slaughter of more than 85,000 horses, whose meat is sold for consumption in Europe, Japan and other markets. Mr. Whitfield said he hopes lawmakers will take up a pending bill early this year.

The Agriculture Department's willingness to explore ways to keep the horse meat plants open will only give new momentum to a permanent ban, he said.

Even as House and Senate negotiators were finalizing the deal to de-fund the horse inspectors, the Agriculture Department was "already talking about how they were going to circumvent [the measure] and already had intended to issue these regulations to allow slaughtering to continue," Mr. Whitfield said.

The Agriculture Department did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

But Mr. Bradshaw said he interprets the Dec. 21 letter to members of Congress as a sign that the fee-for-service inspections will be approved.

"It's our understanding that their legal people have said, 'Yes, they are entitled to that service,' " he said. "That's pretty clear-cut."

Dallas Crown and Beltex already use fee-for-service inspections for the slaughter of emus, ostriches and wild boars, Mr. Bradshaw said.

Mr. Whitfield is circulating a letter, already signed by several others in Congress, demanding details of how the Agriculture Department would implement the new inspection program. He said he also would examine whether the Agriculture Department is fulfilling its mandate to check whether prohibited drugs are found in horse meat destined for human consumption. "It's not very clear that they are doing a very good job of enforcing this act," he said.

While horse meat represents a tiny sliver of U.S. slaughterhouse production, Mr. Whitfield suggested the Agriculture Department may be listening to the powerful cattle industry.

"There is a group that makes the argument that this is a slippery slope, that if you stop slaughtering anything, then eventually you might stop slaughtering cows," he said. "That certainly never would happen."