Horse slaughter plants have become legal again, after Congress quietly unbridled restrictions on processing horse meat. President Barack Obama signed the enabling bill on Nov. 18.
Entities already are considering opening plants in Oregon, and possibly Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Georgia and Missouri, slaughter plant proponent Sue Wallis said.
Between 120,000 to 200,000 horses will be killed for human consumption per year, she estimates.
In coming months, the first couple of plants may open, said Wallis. The Wyoming state representative said her pro-slaughter group “United Horsemen,” is working closely with entities to open what she says will be humane slaughter plants. However, plants will have to get state approval and could face court challenges, said Lauren Silverman Simon, a federal lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States. Wallis also said she is working with some tribes on eventually opening plants to help control multiplying wild horse herds.
“I guarantee it will happen. The horse world is very motivated,” Wallis said. “We've really laid the groundwork ... to make sure it's done very, very well. Everyone in the horse world is so excited we may have an opportunity to turn the whole equine market around.”
As vigorously as Wallis has worked to return horse slaughter to this country, others have worked just as passionately to keep it at bay.
“They're signing the death sentence for thousands of our American horses. The wild mustangs in Oklahoma and every horse in Oklahoma is at risk,” said Oklahoma City horse advocate Stephanie Graham. “Horses are going to die and it's going to be brutal.”
Nine million horses
Though there are many issues, the debate boils down to how Americans view the country's estimated nine million horses. Many people consider horses the iconic symbols of the American West, creatures loved in their role as work, show, pleasure and companion animals. Some say slaughter is wrong for these animals. Others say they love their own horses but slaughter is appropriate and better controlled if done in American plants in order to reduce excess horses. Some view horses as livestock and their meat as an appropriate food on the dinner plate, not only in other countries but also on American tables as recently as the mid-1940s.
American horses are regularly hauled away and killed in Canada and Mexico slaughter plants. Last year's government figures show almost 138,000 U.S. horses were exported for slaughter.
Since 2006, Congress has effectively prohibited horse slaughter in the states by not funding U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of horses transported for slaughter and at slaughter houses. State laws shut down the last three horse slaughter houses, in Illinois and Texas, in 2007. After that, the non-funding prevented others from opening. If it can't be inspected, it can't be sold.
The bill that effectively changed the policy was a huge spending bill covering several different agencies and departments such as the USDA.
Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, got an amendment passed in the House Appropriations Committee in May to continue the ban on funding inspections. But a few lawmakers stripped out the amendment before the bill was finalized, passed by both houses this month and signed into law.
With legislators hearing from all sides of the issue, they requested a Government Accounting Office report (see the accompanying article for details) for guidance in assessing what has happened since the ban on funding USDA inspections.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he voted against Moran's amendment to continue the ban.
Cole said numerous horse owners in his district are “pretty unanimous that they want the means to deal with an excess population.”
He said opponents of domestic horse slaughter “are letting their hearts overrule their heads.”