No Country For Old Horses?

Senate considers horse slaughter

Horses awaiting slaughter at the now-closed Dallas Crown plant in Kaufman
Horses awaiting slaughter at the now-closed Dallas Crown plant in Kaufman (Courtesy of

When the Dallas Crown Inc. horse slaughter plant operated in Kaufman, plant operators bought the small North Texas city a large American flag to place outside the American Legion Hall. In retrospect, that flag did nothing but to make "a mockery of our values," former Kaufman mayor Paula Bacon told the Texas Senate Committee on Agriculture & Rural Affairs.

It would be better, she said, to have a "lead-smelting plant and sex-oriented businesses up and down" a city's main drag than it would to have a horse slaughtering facility in any Texas town. Bacon was among many who came out to a four-hour meeting at the Capitol to testify and show their opposition to the possible resumption of horse slaughtering in Texas – for meat that is then primarily shipped to Europe and Japan for human consumption – a practice that has been banned in the state since 1949.

In Kaufman, which was home to one of three U.S. slaughterhouses when the industry was effectively shuttered in 2007 (the others were in Fort Worth and in Dekalb, Ill.), the industry brought with it nothing positive, Bacon testified; crime was high while the plant operated there, she noted, and the burden the plant placed on the city's environmental infrastructure, including on its water treatment facility, was enormous. Indeed, during the mid-Eighties, the plant was shuttered for nearly a year because neither the plant nor the city's water treatment facility was able to process the blood from the slaughtered horses, which was full of antibiotics. "Literally, blood was coming up through the streets," she testified, "and into people's bathtubs." In a single 19-month period, she said, the Dallas Crown plant was "out of compliance" 487 times, racking up 23 local citations that would have cost the company nearly $1 million; they never did pay up, she said. When the plant finally shut down its operations, the city of Kaufman was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Though illegal under state law, the plants ignored the ban and continued to operate in Kaufman and Fort Worth until a lawsuit, brought by Skip Trimble, veteran attorney and animal welfare advocate, shut the practice down once and for all. The Illinois plant was also closed after the federal government discontinued funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of horse meat, which is necessary for it to be legally sold, thus ending the entire industry in the U.S. But now, five years later, and on the heels of a move to again give the USDA funding to inspect horse meat, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has asked the ag affairs committee chaired by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, to review state laws related to the closure of horse slaughter facilities across the country and the impact that has had on the equine industry and agricultural sector of the state's economy.

The practice of horse slaughter for food is inhumane and unnecessary, supporters of the current Texas ban testified. But former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm disagrees; he's a horse-lover too, he noted, and believes that what is inhumane is the rise in horse neglect and abandonment that has accompanied the shuttering of the slaughter industry, he testified on behalf of the Livestock Marketing Association. "Horses are special animals; that's the understatement of the day," he testified. "But they're also livestock." It used to be that when the slaughterhouses were open, an owner looking to sell a horse could get a good price; since the plants have closed, those prices have plummeted, prompting individuals who can no longer afford to care for the animals to abandon or neglect them (both also illegal under Texas law). Moreover, he said that closing the U.S. slaughterhouses hasn't ended the industry; rather, horses bought by "killer buyers" in Texas now move the animals long distances to Mexico and Canada, often in cramped and dangerous spaces. "If you are opposed to horse processing – or slaughter, as some people prefer [to call] it – I'm for you," Stenholm said. "Don't sell your horse."

While the livestock industry may be in favor of bringing equine slaughter back to Texas (as several lawmakers have also supported over the years, including Stephensville GOP Rep. Sid Miller and Arlington GOP Sen. Chris Harris), it is unlikely that there will actually be any market for U.S. horses to be sold for meat. New rules in the European Union that take effect next summer will require all out-of-country horses destined for human consumption to come with a lifelong "passport," a cradle-to-grave document that includes all drugs the horse has ever been given, testified Jerry Finch, president of Habitat for Horses, a Texas nonprofit equine sanctuary. Since most U.S. horses are raised as companion or working animals and are routinely given numerous drugs, including some common antibiotics not allowed by the EU, there will no longer be a foreign market for U.S. horse meat. In other words, said Keith Dane, the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the U.S., there is really "no viable reason" to even consider lifting the state's ban. (Additionally, pending in Congress is one measure that would again strip the USDA of money to inspect horse meat and another measure that would ban the exportation of any U.S. horses for slaughter for human consumption.) In all, witnesses said, to encourage horse slaughter is also to encourage the overbreeding of horses, a problem that is far more responsible for equine neglect and abandonment than is the shuttering of an inhumane industry.

It is now up to the ag committee to decide whether to recommend the next Legislature, convening in January 2013, take action on the issue or leave in place the decades-old ban.

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Animal Welfare, horse slaughter, Pam Bacon, Legislature, David Dewhurst, Keith Dane, Jerry Finch, Habitat for Horses, Dallas Crown, Inc., Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Craig Estes, Charlie Stenholm

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