Posted on Tue, Jul. 25, 2006

Horse meat suppliers defend industry at congressional hearing

By Dave Montgomery
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The head of a processing plant that slaughters horses for
overseas consumption defended his industry in an emotion-packed
congressional hearing Tuesday and urged lawmakers to reject legislation
that would outlaw the practice.

But proponents of the bill assailed the $60 million-a-year
horse-slaughter industry - composed of two plants in Texas and one in
Illinois - as inhumane and socially deplorable, citing the death of 1986
Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand in an overseas slaughterhouse several
years ago.

"Hopefully it will not take the slaughter of another Derby winner to put
the spotlight on this important issue and shut down these killing
factories once and for all," Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, a leader of
the bill's backers, told members of a House Energy and Commerce

The three foreign-owned plants slaughtered more than 90,000 horses in
2005, largely for distribution to parts of Europe and Japan, where horse
meat is considered a delicacy. The meat, which is lean and high in
protein, is also sold to zoos.

Dick Koehler, vice president of the Dutch-owned Beltex Corp. in Fort
Worth, Texas, testified as a representative of the horse processing
industry, which he described as a 100-year-old U.S. enterprise that
would be eliminated if the bill passes.

In making his first appearance at a congressional hearing, Koehler told
lawmakers that he was using the forum to counter "a cruel, misguided
misinformation campaign against our industry that has reached mammoth

The plants, he said, provide a needed outlet for the disposal of
low-value, unwanted horses that, though otherwise healthy, may suffer
from infirmities or behavioral problems or prove to be "mean or
dangerous." Dismantling the industry, he said, would result in potential
abuse or starvation of up to 90,000 horses a year.

Beltex, which has approximately 100 employees, has been in operation in
Fort Worth since 1976. The other companies are Dallas Crown Inc. in
Kaufman, Texas, and Cavel International Inc. in DeKalb, Ill. Total
employment in all three plants is just over 200.

Industry supporters said the horses are killed instantly and humanely by
a bolt-gun placed to the head under closely monitored federal
regulations. But backers of the legislation said the slaughterhouses are
unthinkable in a culture that reveres horses as a noble icon of stories,
film and sport.

"Everyone knows who Mr. Ed, Secretariat and Silver are," said the bill's
sponsor, Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., whose district includes Saratoga
Springs, the oldest thoroughbred racetrack in the nation. "They are
American icons that deserve to be treated as such. Would we ever think
of slaughtering and serving a bald eagle in this country? The same
should be true of horses."

Pickens, chief executive officer of BP Capital in Dallas, called the
plants "a dirty little secret that should shame all of us." He also
charged that the slaughterhouses are often dumping grounds for stolen
horses, which industry officials deny.

The emotionalism driving the issue was evident in the hundreds of
standing-room-only spectators who packed the hearing room at the start
of the session. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the subcommittee chairman,
later moved the hearing to a larger room, noting "all the passionate
advocates" on both sides of the debate.

The legislation, which could come to a vote before the full House of
Representatives in early September, also has produced hard-to-define
coalitions, dividing horse associations, veterinarians, agricultural
groups and lawmakers in both parties.

Backers of the bill include the Humane Society of the United States,
Churchill Downs Inc., the National Thoroughbred Racing Association as
well as other breeding, showing and racing organizations. Opponents
include the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Paint Horse
Association and horse councils in 10 states, including Texas.

Opponents say the legislation threatens to intrude on private
enterprise, while backers contend it's urgently needed to prevent the
mistreatment of animals.