COLUMBIA — Uncertainty remains about the future of horse slaughter in Missouri even after the lifting of a ban on killing horses for human consumption.
The U.S. Congress on Nov. 18 repealed a 2006 ban on funding for federal inspections of the slaughter of horses, meaning that horse slaughterhouses can once again operate legally in the U.S.
Before they were forced to close in 2007, horse processing plants in the U.S. sent most of their meat to Europe and Asia, particularly France and Japan.
Several locations in Missouri are being evaluated as the site of future slaughter facilities, according to Mindy Patterson, vice president of the Missouri Equine Council and development director of the United Horsemen's Front, a group that supports horse slaughter.
Though Patterson wouldn’t name the locations, she said Missouri will likely see the opening of a horse slaughter facility in six months to a year.
But Nat Messer, MU professor of equine medicine and surgery, said he doesn't believe it's likely a horse processing plant would open in Missouri in the next year.
He pointed out that the congressional repeal is only for one year, and if anti-slaughter activists launch a strong political campaign, Congress could reinstate the ban next year.
"I don’t think anyone in their right mind would build a slaughter plant with that kind of uncertainty," he said.
The life span of the repeal "depends on how politically active people will be in affecting congressional members’ votes," Messer said. "They appear to respond to the most squeaky wheel."
Patterson acknowledged that the prospective processing plants cannot appear instantly.
“We can’t just snap our fingers and have a plant in operation,” she said, but she believes there is a strong need for one.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook from people around the country wanting to have a place to send their old, infirm and unwanted horses,” she said.
Messer said the MU Equine Clinic has seen more abandoned and neglected horses and a greater number of requests for euthanasia since the ban was passed in 2006.
"There are so many horses affected adversely," he said, "it would be in the best interest of those horses," for Congress to keep the ban repealed long enough for processing plants to open up in the U.S.
The Government Accountability Office report that helped initiate Congress’s repeal of the ban noted that instead of stopping the slaughter of horses, the ban had resulted in nearly the same number of horses being sent to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
Patterson said while the slaughter facilities in Canada are all regulated by the European Union, there are several unregulated facilities in Mexico, and horses must undergo 30 to 40 hour trips in trailers to reach these distant facilities.
"Not having the option to process horses in the U.S. has made it worse for those unwanted horses," Messer said.
Patterson said the repeal of the ban has hurt the horse industry in Missouri and across the nation.
"Before the ban, the horse industry was a $102 billion industry," she said, referencing an economic study done by Deloitte Consulting LLP for the American Horse Council Foundation in 2005.
The GAO report found that the slaughter ban had a "significant and negative impact on horse prices," across the nation and that there was a "statistically significant reduction in average sale price across all price categories after the cessation of slaughter in 2007."
They estimated that the price drop had been most dramatic for lower-end horses, where prices dropped by more than 20 percent.
Rob Bartels, a horse breeder from Fulton, runs Tuscarora Stables, where he raises and trains appaloosa horses for the show circuit. He welcomed the repeal and said he believes a Missouri slaughter facility could help bring horse prices back up.
Bartels has worked with horses for 20 years and said the 2006 ban has produced the lowest horse prices he’s ever seen. Without a base price for old and sick horses, he said, the bottom has dropped out of the market.
Last year, for the first time since he’s been raising appaloosas, he decided not to breed any of his mares.
Messer said that since the ban was passed in 2006, the overall number of mares being bred in the U.S. dropped 20 to 30 percent, an effort by those in the horse industry to decrease the number of unwanted horses.
“I don’t personally send my horses to the killer market,” Bartels said. “I’m out to show and raise them. But without the killer market, my market is worthless.”
Patterson, who owns quarter horses in Wildwood, said the re-introduction of horse processing in Missouri would not only revive the horse market but would have a trickle-down effect to industries such as feed manufacturers and tack and livestock stores.
"Horses are an important part of agriculture and the U.S. economy," she said. "The vitality and health of horses is dependent on having processing back in the U.S."