Animal-rights groups seeking to stop horse slaughtering

Lawsuit to include Dallas-area plants; industry is defended

07:48 AM CST on Tuesday, February 14, 2006

By TODD J. GILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON Animal-rights groups plan to ask a federal court today to block an Agriculture Department plan that would allow two Dallas-area slaughterhouses to continue turning horses into meat.

The groups argue that Congress intended to shut down the industry when it voted last year to cut off funds for horse inspectors.

At the slaughterhouses' request, the Agriculture Department decided last week to continue inspecting horses at the plants' expense starting March 10, the day taxpayer-funded inspection must cease. Horse advocates say that subverts the will of lawmakers.

"Congress was absolutely clear in its intent when it said it didn't want appropriated funds going to inspect horses for slaughter," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president for litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, which will file the lawsuit in Washington, D.C. "The federal food safety laws are so complex, and they're trying to take advantage of that. ... We think it violates the act of Congress as well as the federal meat inspection act."

The Humane Society is filing the suit on behalf of several animal advocacy groups and neighbors of the plants whose complaints include smelling putrid odors, hearing horses' cries and experiencing lowered property values.

The Dallas-area plants Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman as well as Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill., have argued that they follow humane procedures typical of meat processing.

The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service is almost certain to defend the fee-for-service plan in court, and litigation could take months.

"We feel our actions are fully consistent with our responsibilities under the federal Meat Inspection Act," said spokesman Steven Cohen. "We're obligated to inspect horses for slaughter and inspect the meat to ensure that it's safe and wholesome, and our obligations didn't change with the passage of the agriculture appropriations bill."

A spokesman for the slaughterhouses, former Abilene congressman Charlie Stenholm, who works at a Washington law firm that has lobbied for the industry, said the suit would run counter to the Humane Society's own warnings that there is a shortage of shelter space for unwanted horses.

"On the one hand, they acknowledge there's a problem; on the other hand they're going full bore to try to stop a legal industry that's doing a very good service for horse owners," he said. "The USDA is doing what they are required to do by law. They are required to inspect horses. What the amendment in question said was taxpayers cannot pay for it in 2006."

Lawmakers have been trying to prod Congress to adopt an outright ban on the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Roughly 88,000 horses are slaughtered each year, with the meat sold in France, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and a handful of other countries. The industry is tiny compared with the beef market, but it accounts for most U.S. meat exports to Europe.