Only an annual budget proviso keeps USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from providing equine inspection services. Without USDA inspection, horses cannot be slaughtered in the U.S. for human consumption.   

Whether or not the proviso gets included in each year’s annual federal budget has almost been like a flip-of-the coin decision, something accomplished mostly out of sight inside the annual federal budget process without churning up much of the controversy surrounding the topic.

But now, the congressional option to permanently ban horse slaughter in the United States may finally come to pass. That’s because the Democrats control both ends of Congress and there might also be enough Republicans favoring the ban to push it over the top.  Its backers say bipartisan majorities are building for the ban with 2021 passage likely.

The permanent ban, known as the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act hasn’t yet been introduced in the 117th Congress, but it’s been around for more than a decade, and  Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-IL, and Vern Buchanan, R-FL, have every intention as sponsors to tee it up again.  

There is a budget proviso in place for 2021 prohibiting USDA from providing equine inspections. Like the language from 2007 that forced Dallas Crown in Kaufman, TX, and Cavel International in DeKalb, IL, to shut down the last horse slaughterhouses in the United States, restrictions placed in USDA’s annual budget simply prohibited using federal funds to pay for equine inspections.

Belgian-owned Cavel briefly resumed operations while an appeal played out, but horse slaughter in the U.S.  ceased on Sept.21, 2007. Without USDA inspection, horses cannot be slaughtered for human consumption in the United States.

The USDA did try to substitute private fees for federal funds, but courts knocked the idea down. Quickly, the only place where legal horse slaughter could be found in the United States was in the history books.

But then In 2011, the annual budget proviso was dropped by Congress. It opened a 3-year period when USDA  actively recruited equine operators. It came up with about five prospects but could not find one that was well enough funded. The annual budget proviso with the ban was then reinstated in 2014.

Based on its earlier failed versions, the SAFE Act likely will include these provisions:

  • Amends the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to outlaw horse slaughter in the United States.
  • Stop exports of horses for human consumption. About 150,000 horses are exported annually, mostly to Canada, and Mexico.
  • Makes it illegal to process horses for human consumption.
  • Prohibits the sale or interstate transportation of horses if such shipments are intended for human consumption.

This Act would effectively shut down the export of horses to Canada and Mexico as well as any interstate merchandising of horsemeat for human consumption. The bill depicts horse meat as tainted and unsafe, in part on the basis that horses are not raised commercially for food and may have had drugs like phenylbutazone administered to them.

The SAFE Act would either stop or force underground, shipments from the United States of thousands of horses to Canada and Mexico where horse slaughter for the world market remains significant. Many of the 54,000 horses slaughtered in Canada in 2016 were transported from the United States. And USDA Market News Livestock Export Summary reported that 53,947  horses were shipped from the United States to Mexico for slaughter in 2019. Those numbers have been higher in recent years.

The SAFE Act last year piled up a huge majority in the House but did not get a vote in the Senate.  That’s pretty much been its legislative history.   The 117th Congress may see the SAFE Act finally reach ignition. In the last Congress, it had 238 House co-sponsors.

But writing in Beef magazine online, Courtney Daigle, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University suggests that: “It is in the best interest of the horse to reinstate horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States.”

“Here’s why:” she writes. “Abolition of horse slaughter in the United States for human consumption has eliminated one of the management tools needed to provide horses with good welfare. This legislative action has created an unwanted horse problem and may result in horses being abandoned, abused, or neglected. Horse owners have fewer options to dispose of horses that are no longer wanted because they are old, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet expectations. Wildlife managers can no longer use horse slaughter as a means of non-native species population control and have resulted in the overpopulation of feral horses that are damaging the ecosystem – to their own detriment.”

While many in rural America would prefer having an alternative to the rendering truck, there’s not really been a national advocate for horse slaughter for human consumption since the untimely death of Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis. The opposition called her “Slaughterhouse Sue.” She had turned her attention to raising private venture capital after her fellow Wyoming lawmakers opted not to embrace a publicly funded state-owned horse packing facility.

Wallis believed banning USDA-inspected horse slaughter was inhumane because it made too many horses worthless, causing too many to be released to starve in the wilderness.

While there’s a significant “ick” factor for most Americans when horse meat is mentioned, that is not the case in much of the world, especially in Europe and Asia. Horse meat production for human consumption totals about 1.6 billion pounds of meat annually.

As of 2013, that production required sending 4.7 million horses to slaughter, with 1.6 million in China alone. Horses are not just another protein source,  but $1 billion in export-export trade. The largest importers of horsemeat, according to Daigle are Italy (22.2%), Belgium (21.3%), Russia (14.4%), and France (14.3%).   The largest exporters are:  Belgium (16.8%), Argentina (14.0%), Canada (12.5%), Mexico (12.3%) and Poland (9.5%).

“Most horse meat consumption occurs within the country of origin,” she reports.  “Domestically, there is a demand for horsemeat from zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, as large carnivores require a diet of high-quality protein that is easily provided with horsemeat. Annually, 10-12 percent of the horse population dies or is euthanized and 1-2 percent of the population was sent to slaughter prior to 2007, with most of the U.S.-sourced horsemeat exported to Europe.”

The U.S. is apparently the exception to the rule that most horse meat consumption occurs within the country of origin. Most U.S.-sourced horsemeat is exported to Europe after the horses are exported mostly to Canada and Mexico for slaughter for human consumption.

Animal activist organizations are going to be pushing for the SAFE Act in 2021, but one of their lobbyists is likely to stand out. Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness  Action, was recently recognized by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II for his work to protect horses.

Irby, also recognized by The Hil newspaper as a Top Lobbyist for 2019-20, is counting on the “ick” factor. “Most Americans want no part of this enterprise of supplying foreign diners with horse meat,” his written statement says.
“We don’t eat horse meat in America just as we don’t eat dogs and cats (a ban on dog and cat meat was signed into law in the 2018 Farm Bill as a result of Animal Wellness Action’s work to end the practice.)”

Irby says “America was built on the backs of horses” and “our iconic American equines were critical to the development of our nation and they don’t deserve this end.” He says horses are “skittish flight animals,” making humane slaughter impossible and leaving them vulnerable to injury when “kill buyers” haul them long distances packed like sardines in horse trailers.

Prior to 2007 when horse slaughterhouses were running in Texas and Illinois, USDA documented “serious cruelty violations,” according to Irby. “Millions of taxpayer funds were being wasted to “oversee” operations involving horses with broken bones and terrifying eye injuries in foreign-owned facilities on an annual based prior to their closure,” Irby said.

The last horse slaughterhouses were also known as polluters with severe sanitation and odor violations.

Horses are not native to North America but arrived in 1519. More than 80,000 wild horses and burros are a factor in some 40,000 square miles across 10 western states where the over-population is devastating to the environment, according to some.

Equine meat may be safer than bovine. There is, however, concern about drug residue in horses that are raised as companion animals.

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