SPRINGFIELD — A Greene County lawmaker wants to make the slaughtering of horses for human consumption legal in Missouri.
But state Rep. Jim Viebrock has a lot of hurdles to clear.
Viebrock, R-Republic, is sponsoring legislation aimed at bypassing a federal ban on meat inspectors working in horse slaughtering plants by getting processors to pay for the inspections.
In September 2006, Congress barred any federal funds from being spent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on inspecting the nation's three remaining horse slaughtering plants in Illinois and Texas — effectively putting them out of business.
But Congress did not out-right ban the slaughter of horses and shipping the meat overseas to markets in Europe and Asia, where the meat is a delicacy.
Viebrock said the proposed legislation would create state-level USDA inspectors by allowing the Missouri Department of Agriculture to levy inspection fees on slaughterhouses. The state's Department of Agriculture would pass those fees onto USDA, requiring no federal funds, he said.
In addition to getting such a controversial bill through the Missouri legislature, there is the question about whether USDA will honor such an attempt to circumvent the legislative intent of Congress, Viebrock said.
"That is the big hurdle," he said. "We'll find out how powerful the animal rights lobby really is if (USDA allows) it."
The proposal has the support of state Agriculture Department Director Jon Hagler, a St. James native and horse trainer who said the federal ban on horse slaughtering inspections has hurt the entire equine industry.
Hagler said the inspections ban in the U.S. has prompted exporting more horses across the border into Canada and Mexico.
"It was certainly less horrible here in the United States where we have standards, safety and inspections than it is if they're shipped to Mexico," Hagler told the News-Leader. "I think a safe, responsible, humane processing facility is a much more responsible way to go."
Prior to 2007, the U.S. was slaughtering roughly 100,000 horses each year and shipping the meat to overseas markets — making up about 2 percent of the world horse meat market, according to USDA and horse slaughtering advocates.
But even if Viebrock's proposal changes the law and creates a new market for horse meat, the USDA could block horse meat from leaving Missouri, making the proposed law ineffective since there's no market in Missouri for horse meat.
"It is questionable whether a state-inspected horse slaughter establishment could operate, even if the establishment were in a state with a state meat inspection program," the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a statement to the News-Leader.
Missouri is one of 27 states with a state meat and poultry inspection program.
Chris Heyde, deputy director of government affairs with Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., said Viebrock is "naive" to believe Missouri could pass a law that bypasses the will of Congress.
"He's markedly misinformed about the industry," Heyde said.
Animal rights advocates continue to push for an outright ban of all horse slaughtering for human consumption in the country through a bill known as the "Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act."
Proponents of horse slaughtering say the lack of a market has given rise to more neglect and abuse of horses that people can't afford to care for, but would have been sold for slaughter prior to 2007.
"They ended up with no humane way of terminating the lives of horses that were -- I hate to say the word -- usable," said Chardy Shealy, who breeds and trains horses at Brindabella Farms in Fair Grove. "They've been trying to portray horses as pets. It should not be defined that way. Horses have always been livestock."
Horse veterinarian Jim Joyce of Springfield said the lack of facilities to take horses for slaughter has "killed the horse market."
"The situation that is set up right now was not thought through and the people who designed this don't know what they're talking about," Joyce said.
Animal welfare advocates say the pro-slaughtering crowd is exaggerating claims of widespread horse abuse and neglect.
"There is not as big of a problem as is being portrayed by proponents of the horse slaughtering industry," said Cori Menkin of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Randy Little, owner of PFI Western Wear Store in Springfield, said the horse slaughtering ban has trickled down to his business. When people can't get rid of an old horse, they don't buy new horses and new saddles and tack supplies, he said.
"People are starving horses to death; taking them out into national forests and letting them out is far more inhumane than having a market," Little said.
With little options for old or infirm horses, some get euthanized and taken to a rendering plant, where dead parts of the carcasses are processed into animal feed, fertilizer, grease and other products.
But there are few rendering plants left across the country. Halfway Packing Co. in Halfway picks up dead horse carcasses and sells them to a Oklahoma company for processing, said general manager Ted Ballinger.
Halfway Packing is the only service in a 100-mile radius across southwest Missouri, Ballinger said.
Viebrock, who is term-limited and running for Greene County presiding commissioner this year, said allowing Missouri plants to butcher horse meat and ship it overseas would help the struggling horse economy.
"We've got to revitalize this industry and put some value back into these animals or they're just going to continue to suffer from starvation," he said.