Posted on Fri, May. 30, 2003

Senate stops bill to allow horse meatpacking plants

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The Senate appears to have killed a bill that would have protected two North Texas slaughtering plants' right to sell horse meat to diners in foreign countries like France and Belgium.

The death of House Bill 1324 endangers 140 jobs at the two plants -- Beltex USA in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman County -- according to backers who wanted to keep the two plants from losing a lawsuit to make them stop selling horse meat for human consumption.

The bill had been stalled in a Senate committee after Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, used a procedural move to delay it last weekend, remarking, "Let them eat cake."

"This is not just an animal rights issue," said Susan Hendrix of the Texas Humane Legislation Network in Austin.

"It's an issue that flies in the face of Texas culture and tradition, the place that the horse has in Texas history."

But a late effort by Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to revive it by amending a version of it onto an omnibus agriculture bill did not please the ag bill's author, Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville.

Deuell had heard threats of a filibuster in the Senate if the horse bill made it to the floor in any form, he said, so he plans to strip it from the bill in a conference committee.

That means the bill is dead, said one of its co-sponsors, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

"I don't know that we have anyplace to go with it," he said.

Deuell said he had been willing to sponsor the bill in the Senate because he was concerned about job losses but was unwilling to sacrifice his own legislation.

"I didn't see any reason for him to jeopardize my bill for that," Deuell said.

Deuell said opponents, including Dallas restaurant owners, had promised him that they would help the employees find jobs if the plants shut down.

The amendment, added this weekend with a slim margin in the House, would strike a 1949 constitutional ban on eating horses in Texas. Hardcastle expected that it would be returned to its original form during conference committee this week.

The two foreign-owned packing plants were given permission by a federal judge this spring to continue shipping horse meat overseas until a Tarrant County lawsuit against Beltex goes to trial.

The company has been exporting the meat for consumption by people under federal laws allowing it. A bill pending in Congress would outlaw it.

The two plants process 50,000 horses a year. Beltex employs 90 workers and reported sales of more than $30 million in 2001, while Dallas Crown has 40 employees and reported $9 million in sales.

Proponents had argued that not only was the bill an economic-development issue, it was also an issue of the humane treatment of horses. If the plants are forced to stop shipping meat overseas and lose money, proponents said, it would remove a humane way for horses to be put down when they're no longer useful for work, recreation or breeding.

Geren blasted senators for their opposition to it, saying that they were "letting special interest groups write ag policy for the state."

"The people in the industry supported what we tried to do," Geren said. "I'm very disappointed in the Senate."

At least two of his Tarrant County colleagues, however, disagreed and were riding high on the news.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, whose district includes Beltex, and Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, who said he had philosophical issues against eating horse meat, had fought hard against the legislation.

"Flicka and Trigger survive another day," Goodman said.

Karen Brooks, (512) 476-4294

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