Horse slaughter conditions in Mexico explored by AAEP group

Debate over the practice continues in Congress
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Though nearly two years have passed since the last horse processing plant closed in the United States, horses continue being shipped from the United States to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

Looking at 2008 Department of Agriculture figures, close to 80,000 horses from the United States traveled to Mexico for slaughter and approximately 40,000 went to Canada. The estimated total of 120,000 is less than the 140,000 figure from 2007.

"That's still a tremendous amount of horses," said Dr. Timothy Cordes, a senior staff veterinarian for equine programs with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. He also noted that the final numbers won't be available until the end of March. The USDA's numbers are based on the number of owner/shipper certificates corroborated with other sources.

To get a better idea of how the Mexican horse slaughter industry operates, a delegation representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners arranged a tour of two Mexican slaughter facilities in the central Mexican city of Zacatecas last fall. Both are federally inspected, but one meets European standards and the other, which is locally owned and run, meets Mexican standards.

If you look at it from the hard perspective of the meat industry, they're in the business to produce meat. They don't want an injured or down or stressed horse any more than they have to, because it affects the meat quality,


AAEP past presidents Drs. Tom R. Lenz and Doug G. Corey, as well as an international member of the AAEP board of directors, Dr. Sergio Salinas, visited the area Nov. 9-10. They first toured one of the two South American-owned plants that operate under European Union and Mexican slaughter regulations. Five federal Mexican veterinary inspectors work at the plant in addition to three company veterinarians. In all, 200 are employed there. About 1,000 horses are processed a week; half are Mexican and the rest from the United States. Mexican and U.S. horses are kept separate during travel but are processed at the same facilities.

"All of the American horses arrive in sealed trailers," Dr. Lenz said, noting that the horses aren't unloaded or sold anywhere, but go straight from the border to the plant. A federal seal is placed on the horses at the border. They are then shipped for 10 to 12 hours to one of the two federal inspection type, or TIF, plants in Zacatecas. "They say they could make it in eight hours but choose 10 to 12 because they arrive in better condition," Dr. Lenz said.

On arrival at the processing plant, a federal Mexican veterinarian cuts the seal. Any horses severely injured in transport are euthanized.

Horses feeding 
AAEP delegation
A delegation representing the AAEP, including Dr. Tom R. Lenz (center), took a tour of two horse slaughterhouses Nov. 9-10 in Zacatecas, Mexico. Dr. Lenz said the plants were well-run, and workers killed the horses humanely by captive bolt.

The AAEP group met with the manager of the plant and was allowed free access throughout the building, where they spent three to four hours.

"They allowed us to look at everything and take pictures. Even in the United States you are seldom allowed to take pictures at a processing plant," Dr. Lenz said.

Dr. Lenz, who is also chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, looked at the horses in the paddocks where most stay for a week or so. He said the pens looked clean and the horses looked good, although he classified them as "slimmer." On a scale ascending from one to nine, as Dr. Lenz put it, he saw many fours and fives. He could tell they were slimmer than the ones he saw at a former plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

"They told us (that's the kind of) horses they're buying now," Dr. Lenz said, noting that is the case because owners are holding onto their horses for a while, even when they can't afford them.

Plant officials told Dr. Lenz they see horses at sale barns too thin for meat processing. They also noted the price of horses has gone down; meanwhile, the cost to ship a horse from Morton, Texas, to Zacatecas stays at about $200.

"(The shipping cost) drives down what they're willing to pay for these horses," Dr. Lenz said.

Before processing, workers move the horses with flags rather than whips. One at a time the horses go into stocks. Once in place, a hydraulic bar pushes the horse forward while a wedge-shaped stainless steel device comes under the chin and cradles the head. This limits the horse's movement, Dr. Lenz said, which better facilitates placement of the captive device.

Dr. Lenz watched a couple dozen horses being killed by captive bolt, with which he said the employees were "extremely accurate." The skulls were then inspected for glanders and the carcasses randomly tested for drug residues and parasites in the meat as well as Escherichia coli and Salmonella infections.

Employees wear white coveralls, hats, gloves, masks, and hairnets while working, in addition to scrubbing their boots before coming in and out of the processing area.

The facility ships the meat to Japan and Europe for human consumption. "If you look at it from the hard perspective of the meat industry, they're in the business to produce meat. They don't want an injured or down or stressed horse any more than they have to, because it affects the meat quality," Dr. Lenz said.

Other parts from the horse do not go to waste. The hides are sent to Italy, hair from the mane and tail goes to China for paintbrushes, the small intestines go to Egypt for sausage casings, the tendons go to Japan for human consumption, and the hooves and tail (without the hair) to a rendering plant.

"(The plant) was an extremely clean, well-run plant. ... From a veterinary perspective, the animals were handled well," he said.

The other processing plant the group visited was locally owned by a Mexican company that solely dealt with Mexican horses. Sellers, arriving in their pickup trucks and trailers, would bring their horses to the plant two or three at a time. This plant processes only about 280 horses a week and has 12 employees. A veterinarian wasn't on site; however, one did come once a week to inspect the meat and facility, Dr. Lenz said.

This processing plant also kills the horses by captive bolt, though the stocks were not as sophisticated as at the other plant.

Overall, the group's assessment of the trip concluded that both plants use captive bolt in a humane and efficient manner, and the horses were well-cared-for and properly handled.