Supporters and opponents of a proposed ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption gathered on Capitol Hill in late July for a round of hearings on the merits of the controversial legislation.
With a little more than 200 co-sponsors in the House, the American Horse Slaughter Protection Act (H.R. 503) has strong bipartisan support. Many consider it to be a protective measure for the estimated 90,000 horses slaughtered for food annually in the United States.
For years, horsemeat has been exported for human consumption to countries such as France, Belgium, and Japan. This past year, the United States shipped approximately 18,000 tons of horsemeat valued at $61 million, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Sweeney of New York.
Sweeney's legislation also aims to end transporting horses outside the country for the same purposes. Senator John Ensign, a veterinarian from Nevada, has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
Sweeney was one of several people testifying before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection on July 25 about the legislation, which has failed to gain congressional approval since its inception in 2001. A second hearing was held July 27 before the House Agriculture Committee.
"The time has come for this legislation to be considered. Not only do a vast majority of members of Congress support my efforts, but a majority of Americans do as well," Sweeney said.
"The fact remains that, to Americans, the horse is held to a different standard ... Everyone knows who Mr. Ed, Secretariat, and Silver are. I dare anyone to name a list of famous cattle or chickens," he said. "They are American icons that deserve to be treated as such."
Horses and other equids are domestic animals that are used primarily for recreation, pleasure, and sport, Sweeney added. Unlike cows, pigs, and other animals, horses and other equids are not raised for the purpose of being slaughtered to be eaten by people, he said.
Even though the American Horse Slaughter Protection Act is not lacking for support, both in Congress and with the public, no small number of detractors have lined up to defeat the legislation.
The AVMA, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Quarter Horse Association, and more than 140 other horse, animal health, and agriculture organizations say that, while well-intentioned, Sweeney's bill fails to address the welfare of the thousands of horses that, for various reasons, are no longer wanted by their owners.
Former AVMA president, Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, explained to the House subcommittee that rescue and retirement facilities in the United States currently have a total maximal capacity of some 6,000 horses. It would be a daunting, and probably impossible, task to create enough facilities to house an additional 10 times that number of horses, Dr. Beaver observed.
"The (bill)," she said, "does not provide the financial support required to ensure that horses given up by their owners are adequately cared for, and inadequate funding has a huge potential to create opportunities for inadequate care.
"Watching a horse slowly die from starvation or disease is not only distressing, it's cruel. Furthermore, horse retirement facilities and sanctuaries are not regulated, so there is no way to ensure the horses living there will receive adequate care."
Dr. Douglas Corey, AAEP president-elect, explained to the House subcommittee that the AAEP does not believe slaughter to be an ideal solution for addressing the nation's large number of unwanted horses. Humane euthanasia by captive bolt at a federally regulated facility is, however, an acceptable alternative to a life of suffering, poor care, or abandonment, Dr. Corey noted.
"Nobody likes or truly wants to see a horse euthanized, but when care is poor, horses suffer, owner neglect and abuse is evident, (and) euthanasia at a processing plant is a humane option," Dr. Corey said.
Opponents of the legislation sought to use the hearing as a chance to correct misconceptions about the U.S. horse slaughter industry. Richard Koehler, vice president of Beltex Corporation, which operates one of three horse slaughter facilities in the United States, said his industry is grossly misrepresented by the animal rights community.
What the public doesn't realize is that slaughter plants are an important part of the nation's $40 billion horse industry, according to Koehler. For instance, the plants provide horsemeat to U.S. zoos and are a leading source for equine pericardia for human heart surgery.
Koehler also raised the issue of what to do with the thousands of unwanted horses if the plants were to close. A horse trader who cannot get a baseline guarantee on the price of a horse is not going to take a chance buying a low-value animal, and that animal will be left with an owner who has no buyers and no options, he explained.
"How do you think most people are going to treat that unwanted animal?" Koehler asked. "The animals—the horses that H.R. 503 advocates are trying to protect—will clearly suffer then."
This argument has force, countered Russell Williams, part owner of Hanover Shoe Farms, only if one assumes that horse slaughter is humanely carried out.
"Such an argument does not mean that slaughter is part of any humane solution to the problem of unwanted horses. It means only that slaughter is a more acceptable evil than the alternative," said Williams, who called on Congress to pass H.R. 503 and put an end to horse slaughter in the United States.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee discharged the bill without a vote. The House Agriculture Committee amended the bill and voted 37-3 to report the bill to the full House unfavorably with a recommendation not to pass. The bill is scheduled to be taken up by the full House on Sept. 7, 2006. The Senate version, S. 1915, remains in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.