Texas at center of horse slaughter debate

12:53 PM CDT on Friday, June 25, 2004

Associated Press

WASHINGTON Most Americans may cringe at the thought of eating horse meat, but an effort to ban the slaughter of horses to send the meat abroad is having trouble getting through Congress.

The only two U.S. plants currently processing horses for human food are in Texas, where a law prohibiting the practice is being challenged in a federal lawsuit. An Illinois plant destroyed by fire two years ago is trying to reopen amid protests.

A bill proposing to prohibit the slaughter, trade or transport of horses for human consumption has the support of more than half the U.S. House 225 Democrats and Republicans, enough to pass the legislation. But bill supporters are looking to the Senate to move the bill, possibly in agriculture appropriations, to force the measure into conference committee discussions.

But the effort has been stymied by opposition from the two most powerful members of the House Agriculture Committee, chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, and ranking Democrat Charlie Stenholm, a Texas Democrat. The bottom line in the debate is whether "you believe horse meat should be used for human consumption," Stenholm said.

"If you are opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption, fine," he said. "I do believe that since there are peoples of the world who are hungry and need the food and do consume it and do so under humane inspection" that horse slaughterhouses should not be banned.

Last year, 50,564 horses were slaughtered in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department. The total so far this year is 24,441.

Fort Worth-based Beltex and Kaufman-based Dallas Crown accept horses from throughout the country for slaughter. Belgium-based Cavel International Inc. is rebuilding its plant in DeKalb, Ill.

The largest markets for U.S. horse meat are France and Belgium, which distribute the meat to other countries, including Italy, Holland, Mexico and Japan, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.

Lawyers for the Texas plants argue that a 1949 state law banning horse meat does not apply to their operations because the meat is exported. But a 2002 opinion by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, declared state law does apply.

The plants sued in federal court, arguing that the state law is superseded by federal regulation of interstate commerce. A federal judge got the case in December 2003, and his ruling is pending.

Even if the judge closes the plants, The Humane Society of the United States and other groups say a federal ban is still needed.

"It's perfectly appropriate for the United States to ban a practice that has no domestic market," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society. "Americans don't eat horses and they consider the animal a companion animal more than an agriculture animal."

The issue crosses party lines in Congress. It also has been divisive among horse breeders, racers and veterinarians, and triggered debate in the Texas and Illinois legislatures.

The bill sponsors Rep. John Sweeney of New York and Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada veterinarian are Republicans. Nine Texas Democrats co-sponsor the bill, but no Texas Republicans have signed on to it.

Supporters of the ban include state racing associations, animal welfare groups, thoroughbred horse associations, musician Paul McCartney and actress Bo Derek.

Opponents include the American Veterinary Medical Association, Amarillo-based American Quarter Horse Association, the American Farm Bureau, cattleman associations and livestock groups.

Both sides argue that their position is more humane.

Pacelle said horses going to slaughter are often are transported long distances in trailers not meant for horses.

"It's thoroughly inhumane to transport these horses long distances and then slaughter them in settings that cause them tremendous agitation and suffering," Pacelle said.

But Mike Chaddock, director of government relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said a slaughter ban would lead to horses dying inhumanely in pastures. Turning horses over to animal welfare groups or sanctuaries is not an option because the groups and government can't afford to pay for their care.

"If these animals cannot go to slaughter humanely and can't and go to some facility, where is that money going to come from?" Chaddock said.

Pacelle called such arguments a smokescreen. He said opponents are concerned the ban will lead to other livestock bans, which he said is "a politically impossible idea."

"No one should be under the illusion that the passage of a horse slaughter ban would trigger any other reform in the livestock industry," he said.

The American Slaughter Prevention Act bill numbers are: S2352 and HR857.