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 V.22 No.21 | May 23 - 29, 2013 

News Feature

Horse Slaughter Raises Hackles

Valley Meat faces backlash from animal activists and politicians

Julia Minamata juliaminamata.com

When the ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption was lifted nearly two years ago, businessman Rick De Los Santos immediately applied for a permit to slaughter horses at his Roswell, N.M. meat packing plant. For more than two decades, De Los Santos operated the plant as a slaughterhouse for dairy cows that no longer produced milk. But an economic downturn sent dairy prices plummeting and shuttered several Southeastern New Mexico dairies, and he chose to adapt to market demand.

Most changes necessary for transforming the slaughterhouse into a horse meat-processing facility happened over a year ago. De Los Santos is still awaiting a green light from the Department of Agriculture. “The USDA has told us that 'we are moving forward with your grant; you are going to get your grant,'” he said. “We have guys making sure all of the equipment is working and is in tip-top shape, so that we can start in a couple of weeks. And all that is money being spent with nothing coming in.”

Furor over the nation’s first domestic horse slaughterhouse—since the practice was banned six years ago—has intensified as the likelihood the government will honor Valley Meat’s application for equine inspection increases. Opponents of the project include animal rights activists and politicians.

Attorney A. Blair Dunn represents De Los Santos' Valley Meat, and he says the government's extreme caution before signing the permit application is owed to numerous lawsuit threats against the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture. “What they are telling us is that there is absolutely nothing holding up our application,” said Dunn. “They aren’t going to decline our application. The only thing they are working on—like I said—is preparing for litigation from other people when they do actually grant the application.”

Furor over the nation’s first domestic horse slaughterhouse—since the practice was banned six years ago—has intensified as the likelihood the government will honor Valley Meat’s application for equine inspection increases. Opponents of the project include animal rights activists and politicians.

Lisa Jennings, of Animal Protection New Mexico, says horses are naturally skittish, which makes it nearly impossible to transport and slaughter the animals humanely. After the horse survives the long journey to the plant, it is loaded into a chute where a fixed bolt gun shoots a bolt into the horse’s brain to render it unconscious. “There is no-way that this captive bolt gun is going to shoot them in the right place in the brain to render them unconscious. So the horse is going to have to be shot with this captive bolt over and over again,” said Jennings.

Debbie Colburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue said she opposes the project because horses aren’t bred for human consumption and are injected with dewormers that are prohibited from entereing the food chain. But a USDA Food Safety Inspection Services spokesman said, "FSIS continues to work with companies who have applied for a grant of inspection for equine slaughter. Grants will not be issued until an establishment is able to produce a safe product in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act.”

Processed horse meat—which some say is as tender as beef—is sold as food in some parts of Asia, Europe and Mexico. No U.S. law bans the sale of horse meat for human consumption after USDA inspection. However, the processed horse meat will be exported and sold in parts of Asia, Europe and Mexico.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R—N.M) says having thousands of animals turned loose on public lands to starve is a cruel consequence of banning horse slaughter. “If horse slaughter is not allowed in the U.S., horses are merely shipped to other countries—where the pregnant, starving and lame horses face far less humane slaughter than they would here,” said Pearce. “And, in this recession, many middle-class families can no longer afford to feed their pet horses and are forced to turn them loose to die a horrible and agonizing death from starvation.”

Jennings doesn’t believe the answer to the equine population problem is starvation or slaughter, and she would like to see more people held accountable for their horses' fates: “These horses don’t come from nowhere. … If they can’t afford to feed them, they can contact groups like ours.”

The crux of the controversy is whether horses are livestock or pets and how to best control the nation’s growing horse population. Supporters of horse slaughter cite a federal Accountability Office report from 2011 that revealed horse abuse and abandonment has increased since 2006, the year Congress instituted the ban: more instances of abused and abandoned horses have been recorded and the number of U.S. horses shipped to Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses has tripled.

Since Valley Meat filed its application for horse meat inspection in December 2011, several companies have followed suit. Between 138,000 and 160,000 American horses are slaughtered outside the U.S. each year for human consumption.

 
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