House votes to ban horse slaughter for food

By Charles AbbottThu Sep 7, 4:20 PM ET

Moved by appeals to protect the noble horse, the U.S. House (of Representatives) voted on Thursday to ban the slaughter of horses for food, potentially saving 90,000 animals a year from being served as a delicacy to diners overseas.

"Horses have never been part of the food chain. Horses are not like cattle," said Kentucky Democrat Ed Whitfield, a prominent backer of the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

Lawmakers passed the bill 263-146 over the opposition of farm and meat industry groups as well as the U.S. Agriculture Department. Foes said the bill was a soft-headed idea that ignored the realities of dealing with unwanted horses.

"This is a piece of legislation that is long overdue," said sponsor John Sweeney, New York Democrat, tracing efforts back to 1979. He decried horses being killed so their meat can be sold "as a delicacy, not a necessity."

Three foreign-owned packing plants -- two in Texas and one in Illinois -- butcher horses for meat exported for food in Europe. "The concept is repugnant to most Americans," said West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall, who challenged his colleagues, "Explain this to your children."

Congress cut off funding last year for USDA inspection of horse slaughter but the plants stayed in business by paying for federal inspectors to come to work. Bill backers said the Senate may consider the bill this fall.

Proponents likened horses to house pets and said horses, which hold an exalted place in American lore as intelligent companions and long-lived workmates, should not risk gruesome death in a slaughterhouse. About 90,000 horses a year are sent to packing plants.

The Humane Society of the United States said horse slaughter "is simply indefensible and polls show the vast majority of Americans agree."

"They (proponents) are arguing about what happens to the meat" but not assuring horse welfare, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.

If owners cannot sell unwanted horses, said Goodlatte, they will be abandoned or "put down" in a pasture or behind a barn, possibly by haphazard methods. It would cost more than $50 million a year if the government took care of them, said the Congressional Budget Office.

Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, Texas Republican, said the bill was "an outright attack on animal agriculture."

The cattle group R-CALF USA said the bill interfered with the rights of horse owners. "We don't need another layer of federal bureaucracy to intrude on our daily business decisions," said R-CALF President Chuck Kiker.

Lobbyists for horsepackers said the bill would set a precedent for meddling in veal calf, hog and poultry barn and poultry slaughter operations.