More than five years after horse slaughtering was effectively banned in the United States, the controversial issue is returning to Texas, which was home to two of the nation’s last three such slaughterhouses.
The state Senate’s Committee on Agricultural and Rural Affairs will meet Tuesday to hear testimony on the economic impact of the closure of Texas’ horse slaughterhouses. The testimony comes in the wake of federal officials opening the doors for horse slaughtering to return to the U.S.
Since the federal ban was lifted, new horse slaughterhouses have been proposed in New Mexico, Missouri and Oregon, and laws that would permit them to be built more easily have been proposed in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. And although no new slaughterhouses have been proposed in Texas, the state's history with the industry has some believing that a lifting of the state ban could be on the table.
Sen. Craig Estes, chairman of the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, said Tuesday's hearing is only a response to an interim charge by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and not necessarily an indication of future action.
"Not every charge results in a bill in the next session," Estes said. "There may be a recommendation, and there may not be."
Either way, Estes said, he expects the hearing to be a "lively time."
"It's a good airing for both sides of the issue," he said.
The opposing sides, meanwhile, believe that the stakes are a bit higher.
“We suspect that the hearing is intended to look at reopening slaughterhouses in Texas,” said Keith Dane, the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. He has been invited to testify about the Humane Society’s opposition to horse slaughtering.
Both Dallas Crown Inc. in Kaufman and Beltex Corporation in Fort Worth closed in March 2007, after a federal court upheld a 1949 Texas law that criminalized horse slaughter for human consumption. The law had been essentially ignored until it was brought to the attention of Attorney General Greg Abbott, who determined it was still in effect in 2002. The slaughterhouses lost their challenge to the law.
At the same time in 2007, Congress withdrew funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s horse meat inspection program, forcing the slaughterhouses to pay for the services themselves. When a federal court determined that horse slaughterers could not pay for their own inspections, the USDA pulled the last of its inspectors from an Illinois slaughterhouse — essentially shutting down the industry, because meat cannot be sold for human consumption without being inspected.
The defunding of horse meat inspections persisted until last fall, when President Obama signed an appropriations bill that included money for the inspections. The change of course opened the possibility for horse slaughterhouses to return to the U.S.
But there are obstacles to again opening one in Texas. The Legislature would need to repeal the 1949 law, specifically Chapter 149 of the Agriculture Code, which bans the sale of horse meat for human consumption.
One of the issues that could be raised Tuesday is the increase of abandoned and neglected horses since the last U.S. slaughterhouse closed. Pro-slaughterhouse advocates say the closures, along with the downturn of the economy, have led to the increase. Those advocates also say that as a result of the closures, horses that would have been slaughtered here are shipped long distances for slaughter in cruel, cramped conditions.
"I think we're in a perfect storm," said Dave Duquette the president of the pro-slaughterhouse group United Horsemen. Duquette, a horse trainer from Oregon, said that horse values were at an all-time high before the slaughterhouses closed. He said the closures had a greater effect on the horse industry, which had survived previous bad economic situations.
"The horse industry never took a hit like this in the '80s," Duquette said.
Duquette and other slaughterhouse supporters said the closures also took away a method to dispose of horses that need to be put down, either because they are sick or lame, or because they are too dangerous to work with. They say rescue operations can't keep up with the number of horses that are in need of homes.
That’s not the position the Humane Society takes.
“Horse slaughter is used by people who don’t want to find a better way,” Dane said. “There’s no more relationship [to the increase of neglected horses] to the closing of the plants than to any other event in history. How can a lack of slaughter cause an increase in problems?”
The federal reversal on horse slaughter came after the release of a Government Accountability Office report that recommended refunding the inspection program. The GAO determined that, since 2007, the export of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter had increased by 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively. The report also noted an increase in the number of U.S. horse neglect and abandonment cases since 2007.
Specifically, the report noted that Colorado had a 60 percent increase in horse neglect cases between 2005 and 2010. No specific data was available for Texas.
According to the GAO report, almost 105,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2006, the last full year of horse-slaughtering operations, and 17,000 metric tons of horsemeat were exported overseas. The amount was valued at about $65 million.
In 2010, 138,000 horses were exported to Canada and Mexico from the U.S. for slaughter.
“There is not an ideal solution for dealing with unwanted horses,” said Elizabeth Chote, the general counsel for the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, who will testify at Tuesday’s hearing.
While TVMA does not support horse slaughter, the group, which represents veterinarians from around the state, says the Texas ban needs to be rethought.
“What has happened in Texas is that politicians simply banned horse slaughter, but they failed to deal with the situation,” Chote said.
Some advocates for slaughterhouses say the closure of such facilities led to a decrease in the auction price of horses, while the cost of raising a horse remained the same. The decreased price allows buyers from slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada to purchase healthier horses (which provide more meat) in greater numbers. Meanwhile, less healthy and older horses are left behind with owners who can no longer bear the cost and are more likely to abandon or neglect the animal.
“Any livestock that has value is going to be taken,” said Duquette, the pro-slaughterhouse advocate. “That’s when horses stand to suffer even more.”
Reopening U.S. slaughterhouses would bring balance to the market and result in fewer healthy horses being sent to slaughter, Duquette said.
United Horsemen will not be represented at Tuesday's hearing, but Duquette, who is one of the investors in a proposed 20,000-square-foot horse slaughterhouse in Oregon, said Texas will turn out its own supporters for the return of slaughterhouses.
“There will be no lack of support from Texans for that,” Duquette said.
Chote said that although many of her group’s members may be sympathetic to horse lovers, they also realize the scope of the problem may require some tough choices.
“What is the more humane solution?” Chote said. “What is the lesser evil?”
Both Chote and Dane said the issue of unwanted horses needs to be addressed not only at the end of animals’ lives, but at the beginning. Both said that more attention must be paid to breeding practices in the racing and show industries that lead to an increase of young, unwanted horses.
There has been one attempt in recent years to change the horse meat ban in Texas. In 2007, state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, and state Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, proposed identical bills that would make it legal to produce and sell horse meat, as long as it was sold outside of the U.S. Neither bill made it to a vote.
Among those invited to testify at Tuesday’s hearing are former U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, who now lobbies for the horse meat industry; Jerry Finch, the President of Habitat for Horses, an equine rescue organization; and former Kaufman Mayor Paula Bacon, who was one of the driving forces behind closing the Dallas Crown slaughterhouse.