By Malinda Larkin
The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service finalized its rule Sept. 7 that bans the use of double-deck trailers when horses bound for slaughter are delivered first to an assembly point, feedlot, or stockyard.
The AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners applauded the final rule, which became effective Oct. 7, as important for improving the humane transport of horses being shipped to slaughter facilities in Canada and Mexico.
The amended regulation makes horses delivered to intermediate points en route to slaughter subject to the same regulations as are horses moved directly to slaughter facilities, thus closing a gaping loophole that allowed buyers to use double-deck trailers to transport horses simply by making a stop between the auction block and the slaughter plant.
"We are very encouraged by the USDA issuing this final rule. It is key in ensuring the proper welfare of horses being shipped long distances for the purpose of slaughter."
The USDA APHIS stated in the Federal Register: "We believe that most transporters to and from intermediate points are already in compliance with most or all of the rule's requirements on a voluntary basis. However, we also need regulatory options to address the owner/shippers who have chosen not to transport them humanely."
Studies have shown double-deck trailers cause significantly more injuries to horses during transport than do single-deck trailers. Double-deck trailers do not provide adequate head room for adult horses, which may acquire cuts and scrapes on the tops of their heads. Because horses cannot stand in a normal position with their heads raised, they cannot maintain balance as easily and may suffer injuries from falling. In addition, ramps used to load animals onto double-deck trailers are at a relatively steep angle. While other species of animal, such as sheep, can maneuver the ramps without incident, horses frequently sustain injuries from being forced up and down the steep incline, according to APHIS.
Recent reports from the Government Accountability Office (see JAVMA, Aug. 15, 2011) and the USDA Office of the Inspector General (see JAVMA, Jan. 15, 2011) also recommended closing the loophole that allowed shippers who do not transport horses directly to a slaughter facility to escape USDA oversight and use double-deck trailers.
Concern for horses in transit to slaughter came to light as early as the mid-1980s. Humane groups produced educational materials for the public then in an effort to focus on the need for humane care of horses in transit to and at slaughter plants (JAVMA 2000;216:1231-1262).
In 1993, a number of horse support groups, led by the American Horse Council, the American Horse Protection Association, and the American Humane Association, and joined by the AAEP, the AVMA, and others, began working to develop a federal bill addressing this issue. The Safe Commercial Transportation of Horses to Slaughter Act was passed as part of the Farm Bill in the spring of 1996.
Transporting horses directly to slaughter establishments via double-deck trailers has been banned under the law since Dec. 7, 2006.
In 2007, APHIS published the proposed—and now final—rule that extends the protections afforded by the regulations to horses delivered first to an assembly point, feedlot, or stockyard.
The proposed rule was introduced just under two weeks after a double-deck semitrailer carrying 59 horses overturned in northern Illinois. The Oct. 27, 2007, incident left 18 of 59 horses dead and dozens more injured.
The AAEP and AVMA support the new final rule.
"We are very encouraged by the USDA issuing this final rule. It is key in ensuring the proper welfare of horses being shipped long distances for the purpose of slaughter," said Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA's Governmental Relations Division. "The AVMA also believes that this ban should be in effect for transportation of horses for any reason and is actively pursuing this on the federal level."