9/25/08

Debate over horse meat gains new life - U.S. news- msnbc.com


Horses being transported to slaughter at a now-defunct Texas plant.



The Animal Welfare Institute says these horses, including one with cut and swollen eyes, were among animals being transported to slaughter at a now-defunct Texas plant. Such cases illustrate the inhumane treatment of many horses destined for the meat market, the group says.
Dixie Wilson / ARTEX

Mike Stuckey
Senior news editor

The emotional debate over slaughtering horses for human consumption gained new life in Washington this week as a House committee approved a measure that would ban the practice nationwide and halt the export of U.S. horses destined for dinner tables in other countries.

While it’s unclear whether the Judiciary Committee’s Tuesday approval of the slaughter ban will lead to passage by the full House and Senate before the clock runs out on the current session of Congress, the panel’s hearings refocused attention on an issue that has motivated animal-welfare groups for years.

Horse meat in package, bought in a Dutch supermarketImage via WikipediaOutraged by what they say is cruel treatment of horses sold for meat, the groups already have succeeded at forcing closure of the three remaining U.S. horse slaughterhouses — two in Texas and one in Illinois — in recent years. But since thousands of horses are still exported for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and many states have no laws that would prohibit the opening of new plants, the groups have been seeking federal regulation since 2001.

“There’s absolutely no way to make it humane,” said Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the ban’s principal backers. “It’s an industry that cannot be regulated to make it humane.”

So the “Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,” sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of Judiciary, and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., would make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to possess or transport horse meat for human consumption or horses intended to be slaughtered for human meals.

A necessary option

But opponents of the law, including some cattle ranchers, horse breeders and veterinarians, say that the now-defunct U.S. slaughterhouses, regulated and inspected by the Department of Agriculture, were run in a humane fashion and provided a necessary option to deal with unwanted horses.

“From a welfare perspective, they’ve made things a lot worse,” said Mark Lutschaunig, director of governmental relations for the American Veterinary Medicine Association, which represents 76,000 U.S. vets. Lutschaunig said his group is hearing reports of a sharp increase in cases of horses being neglected and abandoned by owners who can no longer sell them at auction for slaughter.

Despite the fact that horse meat is widely eaten by Europeans and Asians, the vast majority of Americans have no interest in taking a bite out of Old Paint. Since no U.S. horses are raised for that purpose, they only come to the meat market as castoffs: old, sick, too unruly to ride or genetically deficient. Because horses are not regulated as meat animals, Heyde said, the process by which they are slaughtered is fraught with cruelty.

About 100,000 American horses are exported for slaughter in Mexico and Canada each year, roughly the same number as when the U.S. slaughterhouses were operating. There are about 9 million horses in the United States, according to federal estimates.

Harrowing stories, images

Web sites maintained by Heyde’s group and others contain harrowing accounts, photos and videos of horses being transported to the slaughterhouses. “Deprived of food, water or rest, the horses are forced onto double-decked cattle trailers” and hauled for 24 hours or more, according to the Animal Welfare Institute’s site. “Callous workers use fiberglass rods to poke and beat their faces, necks, backs and legs.” At one plant in Mexico, horses are “stabbed repeatedly” with knives in “a barbaric practice (that) simply paralyzes the animal. The horse is still fully conscious at the start of the slaughter process, during which he or she is hung by a hind leg, his or her throat slit and body butchered,” it says.

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"From my earliest memories, I have loved horses with a longing beyond words." ~ Robert Vavra