USDA bucks Congress

February 14, 2006

Say this for the three European-owned horse slaughter plants in the United States: They have some powerful friends. Who would have thought they could scare the Department of Agriculture into ignoring a law banning horse slaughter that Congress overwhelmingly approved? Quite impressive, especially for a few French and Belgian horse eaters.
    Which makes us wonder if Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has any idea what just happened on his watch. The spectacle began last year when an amendment was attached to the agriculture appropriations bill that would prohibit federal funds in the ante-mortem (pre-slaughter) inspection of horses. As we've said repeatedly, this was not some cost-cutting effort. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, USDA is required to inspect all meat bound for human consumption both before and after slaughter. Cutting off funds ante-mortem effectively shuts down the process. In other words, lawmakers both for and against the ban clearly understood what they were voting for when the amendment passed the Senate 69-28 and the House 269-158. Members of the conference committee understood as well when a last-minute effort to strip the amendment from the bill's final language failed. Either Mr. Johanns wasn't aware of any of this or he hopes no one else will remember.
    That's the only way one can read USDA's lame legal excuse for ignoring the ban with a straight face. It absurdly maintains that since the amendment doesn't ban horse slaughter outright, it is legally bound by law to continue the inspections. USDA points to language in the conference committee report: "it is the understanding of the conferees that [USDA] is obliged under existing statutes [i.e. the FMIA] to provide for the inspection of meat intended for human consumption." Well, of course. The conferees were simply saying that, despite the ban on funds for horse inspection, inspections of all other meat will continue as always.
    Only if the "understanding of the conferees" was to completely misunderstand the purpose of the amendment could one plausibly accept USDA's argument. If USDA had any doubts about this, it should have, like judges, consulted the congressional record to ascertain congressional intent. And what Congress intended was clear.
    It gets worse. To fit its faulty legal analysis into a workable inspection scheme, USDA will allow the slaughter plants to pay for the inspections under a fee-for-service statute usually reserved for game animals and those not covered under the FMIA. But here's the trick: USDA is using the FMIA to argue inspections must continue, but without funding, it is also using the fee-for-service statute. As one Human Society lawyer quips, "It would be the first time one animal was covered by both laws." It probably isn't entirely legal either, which the Humane Society will argue in a lawsuit submitted today in federal court.
    But debating the legal issues gives USDA too little intellectual credit. It knows full well it's ignoring federal law. The question is: Why all the legal chicanery just so three foreign-owned plants can go on slaughtering tens of thousands of horses every year? We await Mr. Johanns' explanation. We also urge Congress to right this shameful wrong and pass an outright ban.