The Department of Agriculture in February said it would allow three foreign-owned processing plants to continue slaughtering horses despite a federal law intended to temporarily halt operations.
Some 70,000 horses are slaughtered annually at the plants—two in Texas, the other in Illinois. The horsemeat is sold as food for U.S. zoo animals and overseas for human consumption.
Federal law requires inspections of livestock before slaughter to ensure that the animals are treated humanely. Late last year, Congress passed agriculture appropriations legislation prohibiting federal funding for the 2006 fiscal year for inspections of horses slaughtered for human consumption (see JAVMA, Nov. 1, 2005, page 1389).
Since there would be no money to pay inspectors, the expectation was that the three processing plants would have to suspend horse slaughter operations when the legislation took effect on March 10, 2006. But in an effort to save their $41 million a year industry, the plants petitioned the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to allow the plants to pay the inspectors' salaries under a fee-for-services system used for elk, reindeer, and rabbits.
The FSIS sided with the petitioners, stating: "While the appropriations bill prohibited appropriated funds from being used to pay for ante-mortem inspection, it does not eliminate FSIS' responsibility under the (Federal Meat Inspection Act) to carry out post-mortem inspection of carcasses and meat at official establishments that slaughter horses."
That decision, announced Feb. 7, angered politicians and animal welfare groups who accused the department of failing to implement a congressional mandate.
"It is beyond our imagination in the U.S. Congress that the USDA would flout its mandate and spend tax dollars ... to circumvent this law," said New York Rep. John Sweeney, who sponsored the funding ban. "Even our most hardened opponents knew that the purpose of the amendment was to stop horse slaughter—there was never any question about that."
The attempt to block federal inspectors is part of a broader effort in Congress to permanently end in the United States slaughtering of horses for human consumption.