Slaughter of horses decried in DeKalb
March 17, 2004

Meat considered tasty by Europeans, used for animal food here

By Nathaniel Zimmer
sun news services

The imminent reopening of a horse-slaughtering plant in DeKalb is stirring up controversy and potential legislative action.

Critics denounce the facility as cruel. Defenders argue that it and other such plants help prevent equine abuse and fill the demand for horse meat overseas.

Human consumption of horse meat is virtually unknown in the United States but is common in Europe, where the plant's operator, Cavel International, sends its product. The Italians, French, Dutch and Belgians are especially fond of the meat's reportedly excellent flavor, texture and leanness.

Some 43,000 horses died in U.S. slaughterhouses in 2002, according to Matt Baun, a spokesman for the federal Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. That's down from more than 240,000 in 1990, thanks in part to public opposition.

Although its popularity in Europe has declined markedly throughout the 1990s, according to the French meat industry publication MHR Viandes, horse meat reportedly has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years because of mad cow disease and because of its relative lack of fat.

The United States has no ban on eating horse meat, Baun said. Nevertheless, some states have taken action against slaughterhouses. California voters in 1998 approved a ballot measure that outlawed the slaughter of horses for human consumption, as well as the sale of horse meat for human consumption.

Inhumane killing charged

DeKalb resident Gail Vacca, a horse trainer and member of the National Horse Protection Coalition, accuses Cavel International and the nation's two other horse slaughterhouses of employing inhumane killing methods, misrepresenting their intentions to sellers and subjecting horses to long journeys in cramped conditions without food or water.

Cavel denies the charges, and other groups say banning the processing of horses for human consumption actually could result in less humane treatment unless substantial funding to pay for the care of unwanted horses becomes available.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a federal bill that would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption "does not adequately address the welfare of horses for which humane slaughter will be removed as an option."

In Illinois, similar legislation recently was introduced by state Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, in response to Cavel's efforts to rebuild its plant, which was destroyed in a 2002 fire and is expected to open in the next three months.

"Humane slaughter may not be the most desirable option for addressing the problem of unwanted horses," veterinary association President Jack Walther said in a recent statement. "However, it may be preferable to allowing these horses to face a life of inadequate care or possible abandonment."

The American Association of Equine Practitioners echoes that assessment. It states that caring for the 55,000 horses estimated to have been slaughtered last year would cost about $100 million.

The American Horse Council, a Washington, D.C.-based horse industry trade group, is steering clear of the controversy. It declared itself neutral on the proposed federal legislation because of a division of opinion among its 130 organizational members and 5,000 individual members.

"We're federally regulated; we're federally inspected," says James Tucker, Cavel's controller and project manager. "We believe that the legislation in Illinois is driven by a minority of people."

Few slaughterhouses

The closure of Cavel's DeKalb plant left only two other horse slaughterhouses in the country. Both are in Texas. They continue to operate thanks to a temporary injunction issued by a federal judge after that state's attorney general in 2002 took the position that a little-known 1949 law prohibiting the horse-meat trade in Texas was valid.

Horses in slaughterhouses are stunned with a bolt to the head and hoisted into the air by the back legs and then have their throats cut. USDA inspectors are present at slaughterhouses every day they operate, according to the USDA's Baun.

Vacca said horses sometimes are not rendered unconscious by the bolt.

Not all horse meat processed in the United States is exported for human consumption. Central Nebraska Packing sells about 2 million pounds of horse per year to zoos, where it is fed to large carnivores, according to the plant's general manager, Lloyd Woodward. He said the company buys the meat from the Beltex Corp. plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Vacca and other opponents of horse slaughterers say their foes mainly kill healthy animals in the prime of life.

"It's not the sick and the lame," she says.

But at least one study casts doubt on that position. The report, by Temple Grandin of Colorado State University and others, found that about 1 in 10 horses in slaughterhouses are "sound, usable riding horses," compared with almost half of all horses at auctions. Grandin is a professor of animal sciences and designs livestock-processing facilities. The study did not include the Cavel plant because it closed during the survey process.

Horses are not raised for food in the United States. Instead, they usually are purchased at auction by plant representatives whom the slaughter critics call "killer buyers."

Some 90 percent of horses slaughtered at the Cavel plant were brought in from outside Illinois, according to Vacca. She said one popular auction for slaughterhouse buyers is in New Holland, Pa., and another is in Shipshewana, Ind.