Horse slaughter for human consumption faces hurdles

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As the summer winds down, decisions are expected in the near future regarding the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. On both a state and federal level, the practice has been attacked in recent years.

While federal law currently allows this practice, only two horse slaughter facilities operate in the United States: Beltex Corp., in Fort Worth, Texas, and Dallas Crown Inc., in Kaufman, Texas. The horseflesh is then exported to Canada, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. The plants say they are offering a service, by providing food that countries want and humanely disposing of animals that have outlived their usefulness. Many U.S. residents, however, are outraged, seeing horses as companion animals, not as food animals.

This past May, the AVMA Executive Board endorsed the AAEP's position statement concerning the transportation and processing of horses. It states: "The AAEP recognizes that the processing of unwanted horses is currently a necessary aspect of the equine industry, and provides a humane alternative to allowing the horse to continue a life of discomfort and pain, and possibly inadequate care or abandonment."

The statement also iterates the AAEP's belief that horses should be treated humanely; transported to the processing facility according to federal guidelines; and euthanatized in a humane manner in accordance with AVMA guidelines.

Texas attacks
Beltex and Dallas Crown began to have problems in late 2002, when the Texas attorney general took the position that a 1949 Texas law is valid. The law, part of the Texas Agricultural Code, made the sale, possession, or transfer of horsemeat for human consumption illegal. The law was brought to the attorney general's attention by animal rights activists who unearthed it, in an effort to prevent such slaughter.

After the attorney general issued the position, the companies then filed a suit against the district attorney overseeing the city of Fort Worth as well as the DA overseeing the city of Kaufman. The companies sought and obtained a temporary injunction from a federal judge, which allows them to operate until a final decision in the case is handed down.

Currently, only the DA handling Fort Worth, Ann Diamond, is pursuing a case against the facility in her jurisdiction, the one against Beltex. She says the case is going to come down to whether the federal law, which currently allows the slaughter of horses for human consumption, can preempt Texas law.

"Our argument is that the federal law applies but doesn't force us to allow it," Diamond said. "If there is never any horsemeat processed here, then it doesn't kick in."

Another issue is whether the 1949 law is moot in Texas. Various regulations control the horse slaughter industry, so doesn't that mean that the practice is legal? Not necessarily, Diamond argues. "We have a marijuana tax, but that doesn't mean it's legal to possess it," she said. "It's just another enforcement mechanism."

John Linebarger, attorney for Beltex, says he feels fairly confident about the outcome of the case. "As a general rule, federal courts don't issue temporary injunctions unless there is a showing that there is a substantial probability that the party is going to prevail on the merits," he said. The federal government preempts the state government when it comes to the matter of interstate and foreign commerce, he argues.

In the past few months, lawyers for both sides have been refining their arguments, in preparation for submitting their motions to the judge for consideration. The judge will then either lift the injunction or make it permanent. Diamond thinks a decision could come by late fall.

While the lawyers have been honing their arguments, there have been some attempts, in the form of introduced bills, to legalize horse slaughter for human consumption in Texas. These efforts, however, have failed. In the spring, House Bill 1324 passed the Texas House of Representatives but died in the Senate. It briefly resurfaced as an amendment attached to a Senate bill, but was removed at the end of May because of a public outcry.

Looming federal problems
Even if the judge in the Texas case rules favorably for the horse slaughter industry, the two horse slaughter companies still have other things to worry about.

Legislation has been introduced in the past two Congresses that would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption in all states (see JAVMA, July 1, 2003, page 16). New York Rep. John Sweeney introduced the most recent legislation, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 857), on Feb. 13, 2003. At press time, it had been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The Executive Board approved a recommendation that the AVMA oppose bills such as Sweeny's that fail to address horse welfare, costs related to their care, and environmental concerns with horse carcass disposal, and prohibit the use of euthanasia methods indicated as acceptable or conditionally acceptable in the 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia.

One stumbling block for this federal bill, however, is the trade issues that come into play when you consider the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization agreements. Currently, a company in Mexico trucks slaughtered horses up to the Texas plants for processing, and this company would be affected. There is also a question of whether you can restrict the exportation of one meat and not another.

Individuals in many countries see horses as food animals and the demand is not likely to go away. "In talking to my counterparts in the European Union, for the near future at least, horsemeat consumption will increase," says Dr. Timothy Cordes, U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughter horse program leader. "This is due to, one, the perception of mad cow disease, and, two, that horsemeat is a healthier alternative with less fat."