An estimated 75,000 horses are slaughtered annually at three foreign-owned slaughterhouses in the United States. The meat is then sold to distributors in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, where it is eaten by people who consider it a delicacy.
On Sept. 7, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 263-146 to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., voted against the bill on the grounds that it could endanger Missouri’s $3.1 billion livestock industry.
“It sets a dangerous precedent,” said Scott Baker, spokesman for Hulshof. “It would ban a livestock product for reasons other than food safety or public health. We heard from several livestock owners who oppose the bill.”
Missouri has the nation’s third-largest horse population, at 200,000, according to 2001 estimates from a Missouri Department of Agriculture survey. Only Texas and California had more.
With the fate of this amendment now up to the Senate, it remains to be seen whether it will advance in the legislative process. A lingering question is whether horses fit into the category of pet or livestock commodity.
Supporters of the House bill say that horses are an American icon and should be euthanized rather than shipped to plants to be killed. But John McBride, the director of information for the Kansas City-based Livestock Marketing Association, one of more than 200 agricultural groups that oppose the bill, said that horses cannot be treated like pets because of characteristics that make them similar to live-
“A horse is 1,800 pounds,” McBride said. “You can’t just bury it in your backyard. I know some people consider them pets, and that’s their right. But you have to consider them livestock when you consider what happens ultimately — they are bigger than pets.”
McBride also said the bill is unfair to horse owners.
“The government should not be in the business of telling you whether you should be making money off your personal property,” he said. “That’s just the government trampling on personal property rights. Nobody is forcing you to do something with your horse that you don’t want to do.”
James Tucker, the general manager of Cavel International, a Belgian-owned slaughterhouse in Dekalb, Ill., said his plant humanely kills the 26,000 horses it processes each year. Comparable to a beef plant, the horses arrive in trucks, are unloaded into pens, lined up and rendered unconscious by a bolt fired into the brain, Tucker said.
“The method of euthanasia is by USDA standards,” Tucker said. “We have a USDA vet at the plant, and if we weren’t doing it humanely, we’d be shut down.”
The Humane Society of the United States, a supporter of the bill, disagrees. It argues that horses suffer during the process.
“Aside from the torture they endure in the slaughterhouse, the transportation is particularly brutal,” said Diane Webber, the director of the organization’s Midwest Regional Office, whose jurisdiction includes Missouri. “We do not feel that American horses should be going on foreign plates.”
Tucker said he buys the horses for $300 to $500 each from people who buy them from horse owners at auctions. He said he buys the horses from people in the Midwest but doesn’t know the horses’ origins. The other two horse slaughterhouses are in Texas.
Though slaughter is intended to take older and/or sick horses off the hands of their owners, Nancy Perry, the vice president of government affairs at the Humane Society, said horses often end up at slaughterhouses by accident.
“More than 92 percent of the horses that arrive for slaughter now are in good condition, not infirm,” Perry said. “If they hadn’t ended up at the slaughter plant, they would have been sold to other buyers.”
The Humane Society suggests that sick horses be euthanized. The procedure costs around $50, said Rob Foss, who is against the bill and is an equine veterinarian at Equine Medical Services in Columbia. Owners also have to pay to dispose of the carcass.
Foss said he thinks passage of the bill could cause problems because horses that aren’t useful “could be left to less than desirable living circumstances” if they are not slaughtered.
“It really concerns me that there will be no places for these horses to go. Where are you going to put 70,000 extra horses a year?”
Perry said that, under existing regulations, horses destined for slaughter are not inspected until they arrive at the slaughterhouse.
Tucker said the USDA also inspects the meat before it is sent out of the country and he thinks that by effectively putting an end to horse slaughter, horses would be less protected than they are now because of a lack of oversight.
Perry said fewer than one percent of the 750,000 horses that die annually in the U.S. ultimately go to slaughter. The Humane Society suggests horse owners send horse remains to rendering plants, where they are recycled into non-food products such as fertilizer, car tires and glue. Perry said there are nine rendering plants in Missouri, which charge around $100 to retrieve remains.
“Rendering, thankfully, can be done after the horse has been given a humane death at its own home,” Perry said. “So the horse doesn’t have to go through suffering and transport.”