In what looks likely to be my last hour before becoming a “lame duck” FPE, and our last hour before congratulating two fantastic new FPEs on their wins, I’d like to discuss a topic that’s as close to my heart as any political issue: The slaughter of horses in the United States for human consumption overseas.
This is a federal issue, but it’s also very much a Colorado issue. Our state is home to approximately 256,000 horses, 70% of which are used for showing or recreation, as well as a rich equestrian heritage. Recently, the BBC recognized Denver’s “cowboy culture” as a major draw for tourists. When national interests wanted to gauge veterinarians’ feelings about horse euthanasia, they polled Colorado veterinarians. The horse industry overall has a $1.6 billion impact on Colorado’s economy annually, and 104,200 Coloradoans are involved in the horse industry, according to the American Horse Council.
After the USDA Appropriations bill passed on November 18th, 2011, a great deal of misinformation began to circulate online about this topic. After the jump, I’ve addressed several common misconceptions (scroll to the bottom for source citations), but let’s start with the most recently propagated one:
Misconception 1: Horse slaughter was banned under George W. Bush and legalized by Barack Obama.
The Facts: Horse slaughter has never been legislatively prohibited at a federal level in the United States. Instead, from 2007-2010, a provision included in USDA appropriations bills prohibited the USDA from funding (mandatory) inspections at slaughterhouses processing equines. This did not shut down any existing processing plants, because the last plants to slaughter horses in the US were shut down by state laws in Illinois and Texas, also in 2007. The 2012 USDA Appropriations bill lacks this provision, but that’s no guarantee that anyone will be slaughtering horses in America in 2012. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (after the jump):
While a plant could open and start processing horses, it should be understood that this appropriations bill is only good until September 30, 2012. In addition, as mentioned above, there are two bills currently in Congress proposing to ban horse processing in the U.S.: H.R. 2966 and S. 1176.
Due to state laws passed in Texas and Illinois, the home of the last plants to process horses in the U.S. in 2007, the processing of horses for human consumption in those states, even with USDA inspections allowed, will not be possible. Horse processing also is banned in California.
Misconception 2: Horse slaughter stopped from 2007-2011.
The Facts: Nothing of the sort happened. Slaughter did not stop, because the funding provision did nothing to address the legality of selling or transporting American horses for human consumption. Instead of being slaughtered in the US, horses were shipped to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. Many animal welfare groups believe that this created additional suffering due to the length of transport (in cramped, crowded stock trailers) and the lack of regulations intended to create a more humane slaughter process, particularly in Mexico. On a personal note, I rescued one horse from slaughter in 2005 and one in 2011. The only difference was that my mare (saved May 2011) would have gone to Mexico, while my gelding (October 2005) was headed for Texas.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute:
The former US-based, foreign owned horse slaughter companies and a handful of trade associations that support horse slaughter have contributed to the continued export of tens of thousands of America’s horses for slaughter in Mexico and Canada either by physically shipping horses to slaughter or by actively opposing legislation banning horse slaughter.
Misconception 3: Slaughtered horses are old, lame, or otherwise in poor physical condition.
The Facts: The USDA estimates that over 92% of slaughtered horses are presented in “good” physical condition. In my personal experience as a lifelong equestrian and horse rescue supporter/volunteer/former board member, most horses sent to slaughter are victims of poor marketing or one or more abusive industries. The horses themselves are no less useful than any other similarly priced equine. Former racehorses are often slaughtered because their very short careers–most high-dollar races are for horses just two and three years old–demand that racing barns quickly dispose of all but the very best racehorses at the end of every racing season. Horses no longer needed for university research programs are also frequently sent to slaughter en masse, as are unsold youngstock from large breeding programs or large herds whose owners die without providing a bequest for the horses’ care. (My gelding is a near-casualty of racing, while my mare was left homeless with over 100 other purebred Arabian horses when her owner died.)
Misconception 4: Horse slaughter is humane euthanasia.
The Facts: When you ask a veterinarian to euthanize your horse, the process is much like that for a pet dog or cat: A lethal overdose of pentobarbital combination solution is administered, stopping the animal’s heart. If you cannot afford chemical euthanasia or intend to use the carcass for animal food, a well-aimed gunshot can also produce a relatively painless and immediate death; in fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association says that a gunshot is a faster method of euthanasia than chemical injection. The average cost of chemical euthanasia and carcass disposal is $200, less than the $225 average cost of keeping a horse for one month.
By contrast, horse slaughter involves a journey of many hours, generally in a cramped stock trailer with no climate control, crowded in with tens of unfamiliar horses, to a slaughterhouse where horses awaiting slaughter can hear and smell other horses dying. A captive bolt gun designed for cattle is used to kill horses in most slaughter plants. The following graphic description from the Humane Society accurately depicts what I have seen when I forced myself, reluctantly, to watch the undercover footage mentioned here (skip this quote if you’re squeamish):
Undercover footage from inside these horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. demonstrated how horrific these plants were-many horses were conscious when they were shackled and hoisted by a rear leg to have their throats cut. There was a history of abuse and cruelty at the U.S. plants, including employees whipping horses in the face and horses giving birth on the killing floors. USDA recently released photos of horses with broken bones protruding from their bodies, eyeballs hanging by a thread of skin, and open wounds all taken at former U.S. horse slaughterhouses.
Misconception 5: Horsemeat is a safe alternative to other meats.
The Facts: Because horsemeat is not sold for human consumption in the United States, horse owners are not subject to the same restrictions of feeding and medication that apply to owners of livestock intended for human consumption, such as beef cattle. The most common analgesic used for horses, “bute,” is a known carcinogen in humans and has been banned for human use since the 1960s. The FDA issued a ruling in 2003 confirming that bute has been found in the muscle tissue of slaughtered dairy cattle, and reiterating that bute should only be used for horses not intended for human consumption. However, most companion and performance horses are given bute numerous times during their lives. I personally administer bute an average of at least 1-2 times per year for minor muscle and joint stiffness. Here’s what the FDA says about the safety of bute for humans:
Phenylbutazone is known to induce blood dyscrasias, including aplastic anemia, leukopenia, agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia and deaths. Hypersensitivity reactions of the serum-sickness type have also been reported. In addition, phenylbutazone is a carcinogen, as determined by the National Toxicology Program.
Misconception 7: Slaughter bans result in additional cruelty to and neglect of horses.
The Facts: Two things happened in 2007 relevant to this issue:
1. All US horse slaughter plants for human consumption closed.
2. The US economy crashed.
Refer to the first misconception on this list for a moment. Horses continued to be slaughtered in and following 2007. Therefore, an absence of slaughter could not have resulted in additional neglect, abandonment, or cruelty–there WAS no absence of slaughter.
There was, however, a deep recession. Horses are, for most families, a luxury rather than a necessity or working animal. Horse rescues, like dog and cat shelters, experienced a spike in demand for their services after the 2007 economic crash. Dogs and cats were also abandoned in greater numbers during the recession, even though slaughter has never been an option for those companion animals.
When horse slaughter bans take effect (and remember, there’s NEVER been a federal horse slaughter ban) in healthy economies, guess what happens? There’s no spike in cruelty/abandonment, but there’s a huge drop in horse theft. From the Animal Welfare Institute:
According to numbers obtained from the California Livestock and Identification Bureau, since horse slaughter was banned in California horse theft has dropped by over 34%…
…here has been no documented rise in abuse and neglect cases in California since the state banned horse slaughter for human consumption in 1998. There was no documented rise in Illinois following closure of the state’s only horse slaughter plant in 2002 and it’s reopening in 2004. Since closure of the domestic plants in the earlier part of 2007 there has been no correlating rise in neglect and abuse cases. Conversely, horse slaughter engenders indiscriminate breeding and neglect by providing a “dumping ground” for unscrupulous owners.
Horse slaughter for human consumption is inhumane, produces an unsafe food product, and increases indiscriminate theft of companion animals and potentially valuable performance horses. However, in my opinion, the US Congress acted correctly in failing to reinstate a funding prohibition prohibiting USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants. The right solution to protect America’s horses isn’t procedural game-playing; it’s a federal ban, such as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (HR 503).
Citations and Further Reading:
AVMA opinion on horse slaughter — this organization tentatively supports slaughter, including their opinion for fairness’ sake