Government study says equine slaughter has shifted to Mexico, Canada

Posted: Friday, June 24, 2011 3:53 PM

by Frank Angst

A government study has determined that U.S. horses are being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico at nearly the same rates as they were in the U.S. before U.S. slaughterhouses were halted in 2007.

The report finds current U.S. policy to be flawed and its recommendations gave a foothold to both supporters of allowing equine slaughter in the U.S. and those who favor stricter laws aimed at ending equine export for slaughter.

In the report released Wednesday, the bi-partisan Government Accountability Office determined that in 2010 137,984 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, up slightly from 2006 figures—the last full year that equine slaughter took place in the U.S. The report said 137,688 domestic horses were slaughtered in 2006, 104,899 in the U.S. and 32,789 after export.

Because horses currently are first exported before slaughter, the report said they endure longer shipping distances. Because the slaughter is taking place in other countries they lose protection of U.S. humane slaughter protections. The report said in 2006 about 32,789 domestic horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter but those numbers spiked to 137,984 in 2010, with a 148% increase in Canada and a 660% increase in Mexico.

The report also suggested an increase in horse neglect cases since 2007. While noting national figures on the topic are unavailable, the report said information provided by state and local governments, as well by animal welfare organizations, suggest the increase. The report cited information from California, Colorado, Florida, and Texas.

In 2007, Congress halted federal funding to inspect horses slaughterhouses, effectively prohibiting domestic slaughter. The GAO report suggests the policy has not solved the problem and outlined options that could pave the way for a monumental fight on the issue. It recommends that equine slaughter either be allowed in the U.S. under policies similar to its ending in 2007 or a strengthening of current policies.

In its recommendations, the report suggests Congress could reconsider its restrictions on equine slaughter, allow and fund U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at domestic slaughter plants, and require more regulation in the process. The other recommendation would be to strengthen current policy by specifically banning the export of horses for slaughter in foreign countries. That policy would require language that would readily identify such horses and more funding for enforcement.

The United States Humane Society supports strengthening the laws and banning exports, noting that there already is proposed legislation aiming to do just that.

“Industries that want to profit from horse slaughter, and the export of American horse meat to Europe and Asia, will claim that we need to reopen horse slaughter plants in the U.S. so that horses are not traveling long distances to Canada and Mexico, and that Congress should fund USDA oversight of horse slaughter, potentially adding millions of dollars to the federal budget and distracting agency inspectors from other food safety responsibilities,” said Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “But when a handful of slaughter plants did operate in the U.S., horses still traveled long distances across the country in dangerous double-decker trucks, and the transport and slaughter processes involved were inherently inhumane.

“There’s no reason to believe that slaughter plants would spring up in every community to make the transport distances shorter, or that horses would evolve into a species that no longer has a flight response, which makes the stunning and slaughter process very difficult and clumsy.”

Policies that ended U.S. equine slaughter came just before the start of difficult economic times in the U.S., a fact Markarian believes helps explain why slaughter numbers have remained consistent and horse neglect cases have increased. He said just because irresponsible owners are choosing to export horses for slaughter does not justify reopening U.S. slaughter plants.

“It’s like saying the U.S. should repeal its child labor laws because bad actors are using Mexican children to work in factories or transporting American children across the border to Mexico to work in response to U.S. law,” Markarian said.

Representatives from the American Horse Council’s Unwanted Horse Coalition could not be reached on Friday. The American Association of Equine Practitioners, which opposed the changes to U.S. slaughter policy for some of the reasons outlined in the GAO report, is preparing a response for Monday.

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Nebraska) said current policy has not worked and allowing equine slaughter would provide U.S. jobs.

“The GAO report makes it clear ending horse processing has had a detrimental effect on both the economy and animal welfare,” Smith said. “In light of this information, Congress should re-evaluate this misguided policy; to allow responsible horse management which would create jobs, generate revenue, and strengthen a struggling horse industry.”

But Rep. James Moran (D-Virginia) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) told the Washington Times that they favor adding a crackdown on equine exports for slaughter to go along with the current policy. Both said the public favors such a policy.

To read the full GAO study, click here.