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Horse Slaughter/Animal Cruelty

HORSES STILL CAN BE KILLED FOR FOOD MEATPACKERS GOT RULES CHANGED

Zachary Coile San Francisco Chronicle April 3, 2006

Washington -- For years, horse advocates have tried to shut three foreign-owned plants in the United States that slaughter horses and ship the meat to France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, where it is served in restaurants as a delicacy.

Congress amended an agriculture spending bill last fall to ban using taxpayer funds to inspect horse meat, which would stop horse slaughter in the United States because federal law requires the inspection of all meat.

But the Department of Agriculture, lobbied by the owners of the plants and their allies in Congress and in the horse and cattle industries, issued new rules last month allowing the plants to keep operating by paying the $350,000 annual cost of the inspections.

Animal welfare groups and the legislation's backers in Congress were stunned by the administration's reversal.

"They thwarted the will of Congress," said Rep. Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., one of the bill's chief sponsors. "They were intent on going against what was very clearly the purpose of passing the amendment ... to end horse slaughter."

The controversy over the rules has stirred up the debate over the slaughter of horses, an issue that was opened in 1998 when California voters approved the nation's first and only state law outlawing the killing of horses for human consumption.

A coalition of animal welfare groups led by the Humane Society of the United States sued to block the new federal rules from taking effect March 10. But a federal judge in Washington rejected most of the lawsuit.

Agriculture Department officials insist they are bound by federal law to inspect all meat processed in the United States despite funding cuts by Congress.

"It is our obligation to see that the meat is safe -- period -- regardless of where it's destined," said Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The issue of horse slaughter has created deep divisions among horse owners, breeders and veterinarians and has cast light on the plight of old, injured or simply unwanted horses that end up being sold for their meat.

The three plants that operate in the United States -- two in Texas and one in Illinois, all owned by French and Belgian firms -- slaughtered 91,000 horses last year, according to USDA figures. Most of the meat is exported, although some is sold to U.S. zoos to feed their animals.

The horses often sell at auction for as little as 40 cents a pound, but they can fetch $15 per pound in the retail market. Japanese diners pay a premium for thinly sliced horse meat, grilled or served raw as carpaccio. In Antwerp, Belgium, the brasserie De Peerdestal, which means "horse stable," offers meals of "horse flesh" for $25 to $40.

Although it is legal to consume horse meat in the United States, Americans generally are repulsed by the idea of eating an animal associated through movies and TV shows with Black Beauty, Trigger and Mr. Ed. Supporters of a ban on horse slaughter say horses should be treated as companion animals like dogs and cats rather than as cows or chickens.

"The very fact that not one restaurant in the United States places horse on the menu nor does one commercial supermarket sell horse meat -- that is not an oversight," said Cathleen Doyle, who led the successful Save the Horses ballot initiative in California. "It's an indication of the food chain hierarchy and where the American culture places our pets and companion animals."

The three plants have hired one of Washington's most prominent lobbyists, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a Texas Democrat who opposed a ban on horse slaughter during his days in Congress.

"Anyone who owns a horse that doesn't want it processed for human consumption should have that right, and I expect them to extend the same right to me," Stenholm said. "If I don't choose to pay $150 to euthanize the horse and then up to $500 to bury it, if I want to sell it for $400 or $450, you're not going to give me that right?"

The message is echoed by the American Quarter Horse Association, the largest equine group in the country with 350,000 members, which opposes efforts to outlaw slaughter.

"It is an owner's rights issue," said Tim Case, the group's senior manager for public policy. "As long as the animal is taken care of and humanely treated through the end of his life, then the owner should have the right to make the choice that is in the best interest of the owner and the animal."

But critics say the treatment of horses at the plants is often less than humane. Horses sometimes suffer injuries after being crammed together in trucks and trailers during long trips to the plant. To stun a horse, workers use bolt guns to drive metal rods into its brain before hoisting the animal by its rear leg and severing its throat.

"I would love to have every congressperson walk in there and tell me if this is a humane thing to do to a horse," said Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, who is particularly concerned about the estimated 500 wild horses killed at processing plants last year.

The battle over horse slaughter has made for some strange political bedfellows. Opponents of the practice include the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which became involved after Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, was slaughtered in a plant in Japan.

But major veterinary groups, including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, oppose efforts to end horse slaughter, saying there are not enough sanctuaries for aging horses whose owners don't want them anymore.

"We're not in favor of horse slaughter," said Dr. Tom Lenz, a horse vet in Kansas City who chairs the group's welfare committee. "But we feel that euthanization with USDA veterinary inspectors at the processing plant is a better option for these unwanted horses than the potential for neglect or abuse or abandonment."

Critics of horse slaughter say there is no evidence to suggest a ban would set off an increase in animal abuse, which is unlawful. California has seen no increase in cases of abuse or neglect since voters passed a ban on horse slaughter, and cases of horse theft in the state have dropped by 35 percent.

Susan Wagner, president of Equine Advocates in Chatham, N.Y., has rescued 45 horses, including thoroughbreds off the racetrack, horses ridden by children at summer camps, mares used by drug firms to make the menopause drug Premarin and even buggy horses sold by the Amish. She has helped place 25 more horses in foster care but admits there aren't enough good homes for all the horses that need them.

"I tell people all the time, if you can't find a home, then the kindest thing you can do is to put the horse down in a humane way, which is what happens with dogs and cats when they can't find a home for them," Wagner said. "But you are not going to see dogs and cats slaughtered and sent overseas as gourmet cuts for human consumption."

Lawmakers are pushing a broader bill -- sponsored by Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., in the House, and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., in the Senate -- which would ban the slaughter of horses as well as the transportation of horses or horse meat for human consumption.

The measure has powerful opponents. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has refused to allow a hearing, so Sweeney has introduced a new version this year that would go through the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Goodlatte and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who chairs the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, weakened the House measure that cut funding for horse meat inspections. Bonilla, an ally of the livestock industry, added language to delay the implementation for 120 days, allowing the Agriculture Department to write the new rules that kept the plants in business.

But supporters noted optimistically their amendment passed easily -- 69-28 in the Senate and 269-158 in the House. "Anytime we get a bill to the House floor ... we've always won," Whitfield said.

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