By R. Scott Nolen
As of press time in October, members of a House and Senate conference committee were deliberating over an agriculture appropriations bill containing an amendment that would halt U.S. exports of horse meat for human consumption for at least a year.
Passed with overwhelming support by the House in June then by the Senate in September, the tersely worded amendment prohibits the use of federal funds to pay salaries or expenses of government personnel inspecting horses slaughtered for human consumption.
Federal regulations dictate that government inspectors be present when animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Regulations also require inspectors for horses shipped to slaughter.
John Ensign, one of the Senate's two veterinarians, offered the amendment, which is identical to one Rep. John Sweeney of New York introduced in the House. The Senate's other veterinarian, Wayne Allard, was one of 29 members who opposed adding the funding restriction on inspectors to the appropriations bill.
Sweeney's amendment, which passed 269-158 in the House, is a scaled-down version of his pending bill to eliminate in the United States the practice of slaughtering horses for human consumption. Approximately 70,000 horses are processed for food at three U.S. slaughter plants annually.
The congressman's original bill, which has lingered in committee since February, would also make it illegal to transport live horses from America to countries where they'll be slaughtered for human consumption. Each year, somewhere from 5,000 to 20,000 horses are shipped from the United States to Mexico and Canada for such purposes.
The Sweeney amendment is expected to survive committee markup and remain part of the agricultural spending bill, most likely forcing the three U.S. slaughterhouses to close their doors immediately. The shutdown would be temporary, however, since appropriations legislation expires within a year, and Congress would have to pass a new slaughter-related amendment.
Still, proponents of the short-term ban were quick to claim victory following the Senate vote.
"The House and Senate have both stated decisively that horses deserve better than to be hoisted by a rear leg, cut with a long blade, and bled out for the purpose of being served to foreign gourmands," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.
Opponents of the legislation, such as the AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners, say the law could inadvertently harm thousands of unwanted horses.
"Some of these horses might go to rescues and retirement; others will be euthanatized," explained Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division. "But there's potential for owners to abandon horses, and that's been our argument all along."