May 1, 2004, 9:31PM

Horse fans spur push to end U.S. slaughter
Hearst News Service
WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Derby devotees and other horse fans are rounding up support in Congress to stop the slaughter of U.S. horses that would grace gourmet dinner plates in Japan, Belgium and France.

Americans, who have a special love for the animal that carried pioneers into the Wild West, U.S. soldiers into battle and jockeys into racetrack history, are finding the notion of grilled horse steak and horse meat sushi extremely distasteful.

When you watch a thoroughbred pulling ahead on the back stretch, remember that "the winner could be some Frenchman's entree," said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., chairman of the Congressional Horse Caucus, who has collected 209 co-sponsors on a bill to ban the slaughter or export of U.S. horses for human consumption.

"We view horses as athletes and entertainers," Sweeney said. "The American psyche is shocked by the notion that we are going to so inhumanely treat such an important part of our culture."

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a veterinarian who introduced a matching bill in the Senate last week, called the slaughter for human consumption of nearly 50,000 of the nation's 7 million horses last year "barbaric."

To draw attention to the equine issue, Sweeney and actress Bo Derek, who rode to fame on horseback in the movie 10, combed the halls of Capitol Hill last week and plan to do so again this week. Also lobbying lawmakers are actor Tony Curtis and his wife, Jill, who founded a horse rescue farm in Las Vegas.

Derek, an avid rider, says she was "shocked to find out that horses are being slaughtered not for countries that have a famine, but for gourmet meals."

"We're giving these magnificent animals a hideous death," Derek said in an interview. "No one knows it's happening."

Curtis said he started to love horses when he began his film career.

"The history of horses on our continent is extraordinary," Curtis said. "We wouldn't have discovered America the way we did without horses."

U.S. soldiers and some civilians ate horse meat during World War II when beef was scarce, but now virtually all of U.S. slaughtered horse meat is shipped to Europe, primarily Belgium, France and Switzerland, as well as Russia and Mexico.

While a dozen horse slaughter plants dotted this country 20 years ago, now there are just two in Texas, the Dallas Crown firm in Kaufman and Beltex Corp. in Fort Worth. Another horse-meat plant, Cavel International, is under construction in DeKalb, Ill., which has catapulted the issue into the state legislature.

Texas banned horse slaughter for human consumption in 1949, but the law was never enforced.

In 2002, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a Republican U.S. senator, issued an opinion saying that the 1949 law outlawing the sale, possession and transfer of horse meat for human consumption was still in effect. Tarrant County has filed suit in federal court to close the slaughterhouses.

John Linebarger, an attorney representing both Texas slaughterhouses, said a lot of the horses are unwanted and sold to the plants for an average of $300 to $400.

"Some people would otherwise let these things die in the fields and rot," Linebarger said.

Linebarger said horseflesh is very lean and is lower in cholesterol and fat than white meat chicken, which is why many Japanese and European physicians recommend it.

"Horses aren't bred as a food item and so they aren't filled with hormones and chemicals," Linebarger said.

Oliver Kemseke, a native of Belgium who has owned Dallas Crown for 10 years, notes that U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are at his plant to ensure that the horses are humanely treated.

Kemseke said the American revulsion over horse meat is merely a cultural clash.

"It happens in Europe that we have another variety in the supermarkets," he said.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association, which represents about 30,000 ranchers, opposes a horse meat ban, saying it would hurt ranchers by leaving them with the cost of caring for unwanted animals.

"What is a rancher to do when it's time to sell their horses?" said Bryan Dierlam, director of legislation affairs for the association.

The American Veterinary Medical Association also opposes the legislation because it lacks funding to provide for the care of
unwanted horses that would otherwise be slaughtered. Gail Golab, a veterinarian and spokeswoman for the association, said food and water for a horse costs about $5 a day.

"This is not about consumption of horse meat -- this is about the welfare of the horse," Golab said.

But Chris Heyde, executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition, said there are many preferred alternatives for horses, such as donating them to horse rescues and riding schools, or even euthanasia.

Horse-saving activists jumped into action after Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby champion, was shipped to Japan to stand for stud and then slaughtered for food after he turned out to be an unsuccessful stud.

Howard Keck Jr. of Los Angeles, whose father owned and bred Ferdinand, said he tried to buy the horse back from the Japanese to put him out to pasture only to find out he'd been slaughtered for food.