Posted on Thu, Sep. 19, 2002
Kaufman DA targets horse meat plant for closing

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The Kaufman County district attorney says he has begun investigating the Dallas Crown horse slaughterhouse with the aim of lodging criminal charges and closing it under a rarely used 1949 state law.

If District Attorney Bill Conradt succeeds, it would leave Fort Worth-based Beltex Corp. as the sole remaining U.S. plant processing horse meat for human consumption -- and exported mainly to Europe and Asia. In March, an Illinois plant was destroyed by a fire of undetermined origin.

Beltex, which, like Dallas Crown, is Belgian-owned, has operated quietly on the north side for 27 years, overseen by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors to ensure humane treatment. Beltex employs about 100 people. Dallas Crown, which is in Kaufman, southeast of Dallas, employs about 50. The two plants processed 38,000 horses in 2001 and 25,000 so far this year.

The Kaufman County move, part of a national animal rights campaign to ban horse slaughter, was sparked by an Aug. 7 opinion by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn that the 53-year-old law forbids the sale, possession, transport and export of horse meat for human consumption.

The law, which carries a maximum $1,000 fine and a two-year jail term, paves the way for an injunction to shutter the business.

"We're working on an investigation and plan to file criminal charges," Conradt told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday. A case is expected to be filed against Dallas Crown by the end of the year, he said.

Michiel De Beukelaar, the Belgian president of 7-year-old Dallas Crown, referred all questions to Kaufman attorney Mark Calabria, who did not respond to several telephone calls requesting comment.

Ann Diamond, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney and chief of the office's Civil Litigation Division, said her office also is studying the Agricultural Code section to determine whether it prohibits horse slaughter for export.

Beltex argues that the state law might be pre-empted by federal law.

"Legal research is being performed to determine if the statute is in full compliance with the Constitution, the NAFTA treaty [with Canada and Mexico] and any other provisions that might exist making the state law enforceable," said Jim Weems, a Lubbock consultant advising both North Texas plants.

"The businesses don't wish to shut down, so they will try to defend themselves the best they can."

In February, 61 members of the U.S. House of Representatives co-sponsored a bill to ban horse slaughter for human consumption. But the legislation has not cleared three committees, and it remains to be seen whether it will be put to a vote before the session adjourns in mid-October.

The two Texas plants, which have traditionally kept low public profiles, have only recently begun to respond to the animal rights campaign, which earlier succeeded in getting California to ban the sale of horses to U.S. slaughter plants.

Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, said he requested Cornyn's opinion on horse slaughter's legality at the request of a friend, Robert "Skip" Trimble, a Dallas real estate lawyer and animal rights advocate.

But Goolsby said he had no personal view on the issue.

"I don't have an ax to grind. I don't want to eat horse meat," he said. "I was asked to do something. Apparently, the law is being violated. We have to honor and uphold the law of the land."

The U.S. operations, which export to Belgium, France, Italy and Japan, also sell cuts of horse meat and blends to American zoos and wildlife parks, including the Fort Worth Zoo, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Weems said the two plants probably could not be economically viable by selling only to zoos. And some animals, such as cheetahs born in captivity, might have trouble adjusting to other diets, said Mary Jo Stearns of Fossil Rim.