Posted on Thu, Sep. 26, 2002
Equine slaughter
Legislative debate grows on processing horse meat in U.S.

Star-Telegram Staff Writer
The last roundup for tens of thousands of American stallions and mares ends not far from Fort Worth's historic Stockyards.

Their destination, Beltex Corp.'s peeling walled compound on North Grove Street, is becoming the focus of a growing campaign to end equine slaughter.

For the past 27 years, trailers have hauled horses into the plant, the nation's largest horse slaughter and packing facility and one of just two left in the country. There, before the eyes of federal inspectors, the animals are slaughtered after first being stunned in a manner like that typically used on steers.

The carcasses are processed into steaks and other cuts for Europeans and Asians -- Germans eat sausages called `pferdwurst,' and some Japanese consume thinly sliced, sushilike raw `basashi.' In addition, some meat is sold to U.S. zoos, including Fort Worth's and the National Zoo, as the staple diet for cheetahs and lions.

The well-scrubbed kill floor and processing operation mirror that of any of the better, federally regulated hog and cattle plants, insists Dick Koehler, the American general manager of the Belgian-owned Beltex.

"Same concept, just a different species," he said as he stood near a stack of corrugated boxes imprinted with "Taste of Texas."

But the thought of eating such meat -- no matter how humanely the animals are handled -- upsets many Texans and other Americans, who love their horses and see them as companion animals, not a protein source. Unsurprisingly, there is scant popular support for an industry that is entirely foreign-owned and dependent on overseas markets for demand.

And campaigners against horse slaughter have gained ground.

From a dozen facilities a decade ago, the U.S. horse meat industry has undergone wholesale consolidation, reducing it to just two companies -- Beltex, with about 100 workers, and Dallas Crown with 50 in Kaufman, southeast of Dallas and also Belgian-owned.

The number of horses slaughtered at packing plants in the United States has dwindled significantly -- to 56,332 last year from 346,000 in 1990 -- as the industry has consolidated, new competition has sprung up from countries such as Argentina and Australia, and demand from primary markets in Europe has swung.

The two Texas plants have always avoided publicity, rarely giving interviews or plant tours to the news media. Their low profile and the relatively small size of their industry cripple efforts to combat what they say are misconceptions or untruths spread by critics.

Two other U.S. plants, also Belgian-owned, have burned down since 1997. The first fire, in Redmond, Wash., was found to have been caused by arson and reports attributed it to the radical Animal Liberation Front, which did not deny them. The cause of the second blaze, in March in Dekalb, Ill., was undetermined.

Proponents of slaughter argue that it is done humanely. A pneumatic device shoots a stream of air into the animal's brain, rendering it unconscious, before the throat is cut. Proponents also argue that humane slaughter is the best option for horse owners who can't afford to have a horse euthanized and then have its carcass hauled away or cremated.

Finally, proponents argue that many horses would go neglected if not for the option of slaughter.

Packing houses such as Beltex typically purchase their horses at auction, competing against other buyers. Horses are not raised for slaughter.

During a recent tour at the Beltex plant, scores of white-smocked workers with rubber gloves and blue helmets transformed carcasses into filets. Koehler, the general manager, was eager to show off the operations to a reporter permitted entry after more than a decade of unreturned phone calls.

The general manager was clearly ill at ease with questions about the scope of the business, which went unanswered. The tour was conducted after any actual killing, so the handling of the horses could not be viewed. The company declined a request for a return visit to watch the complete process.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. horse export sales have fluctuated between $30 million and $41 million annually since 1997.

What prompted Beltex to permit the tour was a move in Congress to ban the export of horse meat following California's 1998 prohibition of equine slaughter.

No apparent opposition to the House measure has yet to materialize. And Beltex and Dallas Crown have no lobbyists.

But the bill needs to clear three committees before Congress' mid-October adjournment, which is looking less certain every day, legislative aides say.

"I would look to the Agriculture Committee," said Kate Dickens, a senior legislative aide to Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., the bill's lead sponsor. "They don't have a tradition of passing animal legislation."

Developments in Texas may change the picture.

Chris Heyde, a lobbyist for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, said he was encouraged by an Aug. 7 opinion by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn -- a senatorial candidate -- that a 1949 Agriculture Code section makes the sale, possession or shipment of horse meat a criminal offense. It carries a fine up to $1,000 and 30 days' jail time and clears the way for an injunction to close the processing plant.

"We're hoping this Texas ruling will help us," Heyde said. "Obviously, people don't want the horses shipped to Canada or Mexico, and this bill would prevent that."

Last week, Kaufman County District Attorney Bill Conradt said he hoped to close down Dallas Crown this year by using the 53-year-old law as the basis of criminal prosecution. No charges have been filed, but Conradt said he has begun an investigation. Kaufman-based Dallas Crown and its attorney, Mark Calabria, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

A possible move by Tarrant County is less clear.

"We haven't taken a position that the Agriculture Code [section] is or is not correct," said Ann Diamond, an assistant district attorney who heads the civil litigation division.

At issue, Diamond said, is whether federal regulations take precedence over the Texas law. She noted that state, local and federal agencies accepted Beltex's taxes and fees for more than two decades.

Beltex's lawyers say that they are fully cooperating with the district attorney's office, and that the company "strongly believes that it is not violating the law."

"We're still doing our research," Diamond said, adding: "Even if it turns out to be legal, it remains a sensitive issue."

But why?

Americans apparently inherited their aversion to horse meat from the British.

In Calvin Schwabe's 1979 book, `Unmentionable Cuisine,' the medieval English considered horses too holy to eat routinely. Others in Europe commonly ate horse for ages.

France has some 1,500 specialty horse butcher shops. But horse meat's popularity has been hurt in recent years by health scares involving horses from Poland, which reportedly left some 900 people sick in recent decades.

In Texas, Cornyn's opinion was prompted by a state representative responding to a constituent, Dallas real estate lawyer Skip Trimble, an animal rights activist.

Part of a group called the Texas Humane Legislation Network, Trimble said he was asked to find ways to get horse slaughter banned. "When I researched it, I found it was already outlawed."

Trimble said he had no problem with old horses being euthanized by a veterinarian, their remains then rendered into animal feed. "But if the French, the Italians and Japanese want to eat horses, they should eat their own," he said.

Should shipments from Texas stop, rival exporters in Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand can easily pick up the slack.

Like other critics, Trimble asserted that the commercial slaughter and transport of horses is being done in an inhumane manner.

Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said there's no evidence of mistreatment at the two Texas facilities, which must not only undergo federal inspection but also rigorous periodic checks by European Union officials.

Temple Grandin, one of the nation's foremost authorities on humane treatment of livestock, expressed fears that a ban on horse slaughter might lead to thousands of U.S. horses shipped across to Mexico where plants are not as humanely run.

A ban might sound good to some officials, said Grandin, an assistant professor at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. "But they have no understanding of the consequences."

"Some horses do get hurt on trucks," she added. "But the biggest problem is owner neglect -- long before the horse gets to a slaughterhouse."

A veterinarian group, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, refuses to take a stand, calling horse slaughter a "cultural issue."

But its president-elect, Dr. Thomas R. Lenz, said: "My personal position is that a ban is not going to solve anything. It doesn't resolve the problem of unwanted horses."

Horses slaughtered

The number of horses slaughtered and processed at packing plants in the United States has dropped substantially in the past 10 years.

1990 345,900
1991 276,700
1992 243,500
1993 169,900
1994 107,000
1995 109,200
1996 105,000
1997 87,200
1998 72,100
1999 62,813
2000 47,134
2001 56,332

Horsemeat exports

Europe is the biggest importer of U.S. horsemeat. Last year's largest importers:

Belgium-Luxembourg $19.15 million
France $7.86 million
Switzerland $6.8 million
Russian Federation $2.3 million
Japan $2.2 million
Mexico $1.2 million
Italy $1 million

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Barry Shlachter, (817) 390-7718