Horse welfare report released

By Heather Johnson | Friday, June 24, 2011 4:08 AM CDT

The North Platte Telegraph

A 68-page report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding issues surrounding the closure of horse processing facilities has finally been released. "Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter" was presented to Congressional committees Wednesday. It was supposed to be turned in over a year ago.

It details the impact that closure of domestic processing plants has had on the welfare and market of horses and their transportation to slaughter. Congress stopped funding federal inspections of horse processing plants in 2006, effectively closing them by taking away the markets. Without federal inspections, states weren't able to ship meat across their borders.

Horses are currently transported to plants in Canada and Mexico for slaughter. However, those countries don't have the same regulations the U.S. did. Much criticism has arisen regarding the killing process. In Mexico, horses are stabbed repeatedly in the spine until they collapse. Horse advocates say cramming slaughter-bound horses into trailers for trips that last thousands of miles is also cruel.

Breeders say closing the plants created an abundance of horses in the country, which in turn caused the market for them to collapse. They also maintain more cases of neglect and abandonment have cropped up.

Because of the issues, Congress directed the GAO to examine horse welfare since domestic plants closed and report the results. The GAO analyzed horse price and shipping data. Officials from the USDA, state and local governments, tribes, the livestock industry and animal welfare organizations were interviewed.

In the report, the GAO acknowledged the lack of humane slaughter practices in Canada and Mexico, and the distance horses have to travel to get there. However, it said the USDA now lacks the staff and resources at the borders and foreign plants to identify the condition horses are in before they are slaughtered.

According to the report, horse exports increased by 148 percent to Canada and 660 percent to Mexico from 2006 through 2010. Almost 138,000 were exported in 2010, nearly the same amount slaughtered before U.S. plants closed.

The study indicates the market did drop, but primarily for lower-priced horses likely to be bought for slaughter. The report reads, "closing domestic horse slaughtering facilities significantly and negatively affected lower to medium priced horses by eight to 21 percent; higher-priced horses appear not to have lost value for that reason."

The GAO attributed a four to five percent reduction in the price of all horses to the economic downturn. The report also shows a rise in investigations of neglect and abandonment since 2007, which it indicates were caused by a combination of the economy and closing of domestic plants.

According to the report, the current transport regulation only applies to horses traveling directly to slaughter facilities. The GAO said a rule proposed in 2007 would include those moved to stockyards, assembly points and feedlots, but it has been delayed.

Making matters worse, many owner and shipper certificates, which document compliance with the transport regulation, are being returned to the USDA without key information. Sometimes, they're not returned at all.

The GAO suggested the USDA issue a final rule to better protect horses during transit and consider ways to improve compliance. Edward Avalos, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, sent a letter to the GAO in response.

In it, he said a rule could be available by the end of the year. He also said the USDA is training additional veterinary services personnel within the Slaughter Horse Transport Program.

Avalos said cooperative agreements would be sought regarding assistance in inspecting U.S. horses bound for slaughter, including the return of owner and shipper certificates from the facilities. Also, more staff will be trained to evaluate certificates and increase enforcement efforts.

The GAO also recommended that Congress either reconsider federal funding restrictions on inspections, or consider a permanent ban on horse slaughter.

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