Horse plants opposed

Group asks officials to check legality of slaughterhouses in Kaufman, Fort Worth


By ROY APPLETON and DEBRA DENNIS / The Dallas Morning News

The horses came Monday, died Tuesday and by Friday their meat was bound for the grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants of France and Japan.

"It's four days from slaughter to plane," said Oliver Kemseke, standing in the cold-storage room at Dallas Crown Inc., his family's slaughterhouse in Kaufman.

Slicing into a hanging carcass, he pronounces a finger-size piece of strip loin delicious ("Oh yeah, very tasty") and resumes a tour of his plant – through the kill room, scrubbed and silent, to the shaded corrals holding the latest arrivals.

"As you can see, there's nothing special to it," he said.

By at least one measure, the operation is special. Dallas Crown and a Fort Worth competitor, Beltex Corp., are the only places in the United States where horses are slaughtered.

The companies' 150 employees process 800 to 900 horses a week for the palates of Europe and Asia and the zoos of America.

But an animal-protection group and its supporters say the plants are operating illegally and must stop producing horse meat for human consumption.

"How dare they break our laws and kill our horses," said Pat Dickey, a horse rescuer in Marble Falls, who asked the Texas Humane Legislation Network to help end what she believes is abuse of "our pets, our sport, our work animals. Horses are our companions. ... They deserve an honorable death."

Dallas Crown and Beltex help feed a multimillion-dollar market for horse meat, repulsive to many a beef-loving American, but valued by others as a protein-rich, low-fat staple. And slaughter, Mr. Kemseke said, offers horse owners a humane alternative, at least some monetary return, for disposing of ailing animals.

"Most of them here are cripples or have back problems or are crazy in the head," he said of the twice-weekly parade through his plant.

"We're a business just like any business. But it's a sensitive matter what we do."

Beltex has been in business for almost 30 years and also slaughters wild boar, bison and ostrich at its North Fort Worth plant.

"I have one of the most highly regulated industries in the country," said general manager Dick Koehler. "I can't imagine any violations."

An Aug. 7 opinion by the Texas attorney general's office concluded that a 1949 state law – prohibiting the sale, possession or transport of horse meat for human consumption – applies to foreign shipments. Like those from North Texas.

Whatever the morals or economics, "the issue is they are violating the law," said Dallas lawyer Robert "Skip" Trimble, a legislation network volunteer. The opinion says local prosecutors "may investigate and prosecute alleged violations," and Mr. Trimble has asked district attorneys in Tarrant and Kaufman counties to step in.

The officials said they are reviewing the request and issues. Slaughter horses? "That's like killing Black Beauty or Trigger," said Kaufman County District Attorney Louis Conradt.

Fears in Europe of mad cow and hoof-and-mouth diseases last year spiked the demand for and price of horse meat. In the United States, almost 57,000 of the nation's estimated 6.9 million horses were slaughtered in 2001 with exports of horse, ass and mule meat totaling about 13,000 tons. A plant in DeKalb, Ill., accounted for some of the activity but closed in April after a fire.

Higher prices and increasing demand help sellers, livestock auctions and slaughterhouses. A vibrant market also attracts horse thieves and the profit-hungry "killer buyers," who too often deliver healthy horses for slaughter, Mr. Trimble and Ms. Dickey said.

"I know who they are. I've seen them crowd the trucks. These are not all old and sick horses," Ms. Dickey said.

Sliding prices

Prices, demand and slaughter of U.S. horses have dropped this year, as have animal-disease concerns overseas. Mr. Kemseke said he is paying on average 30 cents a pound (roughly $300 a horse), compared to 50 cents a year ago.

Although you won't find horse burgers or cheval tartare on U.S. menus, most states don't prohibit horse slaughter for human consumption. However, California voters outlawed such in 1998, while two congressional bills would ban the practice nationwide.

Such control is essential, animal-protection groups say, because as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be a cruel unloading of animals for pay.

"These people," Mr. Kemseke said, "don't understand."

His family has bred show horses for years, he said. At age 30, he no longer rides competitively, but he recalls the slaughter of a favorite horse. "I didn't go into the cooler that day," he said.

Unlike cattle, horses aren't bred for slaughter. But they get old and injured, and for whatever reasons they get sold, with auction buyers and individual owners sometimes turning to slaughter.

Dallas Crown's supply came mostly from Texas and surrounding states in recent weeks, Mr. Kemseke said. A state inspector checks each animal for theft, and a federal inspector oversees the kills.

"Look at that horse with his leg forward. He can't put his weight on it," said Mr. Kemseke, reaching to pat one of the next day's count.

"We don't kill a horse unless there's something wrong."

How does he know? Mr. Kemseke shrugged. That's just the way it is. "We know," he said.

And "if you are going to kill an animal, you make sure you use everything. Then I call it a noble cause."

Ovaries go to Texas A&M University for research. Horse tendons are proving valuable as human body patches after surgery. Horsehair can make a good brush. Plus, Dallas Crown has a growing business with U.S. zoos, including those in Dallas and Fort Worth.

"Animals are starting to eat better than humans," Mr. Kemseke said, watching workers fill bags with zoo "pet food."

The family company, Chevideco, with slaughter operations in Romania and Belgium, bought the Kaufman plant eight years ago to feed humans.

Dallas/Fort International Airport is handy, the port of Houston (for shipping inferior cuts) is reasonably close and the United States is a prime supplier. .

"There are a lot of horses in this country," Mr. Kemseke said, "and you people don't eat it" – a fact that puzzles him. "It's just a piece of meat" – one, he said, that works well with French fries and beer.

Mr. Trimble said people selling a horse sometimes don't know their animal is bound for slaughter. Ms. Dickey said that, in the end, all horses deserve a peaceful death – euthanasia – unlike cattle: "You raise a cow to eat."

"I've destroyed many horses humanely," said the longtime trainer, riding instructor and humane society leader in Minnesota. "If you stop the slaughter, it would force people to make humane decisions about horses."

But some people, facing the expense of caring for old or injured animals, can't or don't want to pay the $100 to $200 for an injection and body disposal. Slaughter at least yields meat and some financial reward.

"We pay you to recycle," said Mr. Kemseke, who paid $300 Thursday to a Tyler man presenting what he said was a lame, 16-year-old horse.

"Instead of taking it to the dump, I might as well take it here," said the man, who wouldn't give his name.

"The issue is what do you do with unwanted horses," said Dr. Tom Lenz, president-elect of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. "Some people can't afford to keep them."

Horses are slaughtered in the same way as cattle. The animals die, Mr. Kemseke said, with a stun gun's instantaneous blow to the head. Although the process may not be ideal, it is an acceptable option, said Dr. Lenz, who said he observed humane treatment of animals during a recent visit to the Beltex plant.

The veterinarian said his 7,000-member group is concerned that if horse slaughtering is outlawed in the United States, horses will be shipped to plants in Canada and Mexico.

"If they shut us down, they'll truck these horses to Mexico," Mr. Kemseke said. And in the United States, "they'll be digging a lot of holes. Maybe I should go into the spade business.

"You can be as sentimental as you want," he said. "They will never, ever stop horse slaughtering."


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