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Nebraska bill renews debate over killing horses for food

"Loose" or "weigh up" horses, most of which were sold to be shipped to Canada for slaughter, wait to be ushered into the auction ring in Rushville, Neb., on Sept. 24, 2008. Photo: AP/Nate Jenkins

Most Americans would be horrified to see horse meat on the shelves of their local grocery stores or on the menu at their favorite restaurants. Our national taboo against the consumption of horse meat has made it virtually nonexistent here for decades. But until 2007, when the slaughter of horses for human consumption was effectively banned in the United States, the American horse processing industry still exported about 18,000 tons of horse meat to other countries for human consumption every year.

And now Nebraska State Senator Tyson Larson, a 24-year-old freshman legislator who rides and trains horses in his free time, is stirring up controversy with animal rights groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as he attempts to revive horse slaughter in his home state. It’s a move that he believes would boost the Nebraska economy and help reduce the state’s population of unwanted horses.

Before 2007, the American horse meat industry relied on exports to countries like Japan, where horse meat is known as sakuraniku — “cherry-blossom meat” — for its vivid pink coloring; Kazakhstan, where horse is found in many traditional dishes; and France, where horse meat is available in some supermarkets and butchers’ shops. In fact, live American horses are still shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter and export to those and other countries.

But in 2006, Congress responded to pressure from animal-rights groups by voting to cut all federal funding that paid “the salaries or expenses of personnel to inspect horses.” The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 mandates that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls federal inspection of agricultural products, must inspect all meat sold between states or internationally. So once funding for inspection was cut, the last three horse processing plants in the country were forced to close their doors. But although horse slaughter was defunded, it was never outlawed. Legislation which would have banned horse slaughter, ending future debate on the issue, has failed to pass in Congress on multiple occasions.

In January, Larson introduced LB305, a bill which would allow Nebraska to open a state meat and poultry inspection agency. Though the bill does not directly address horse slaughter, its implications for that industry are clear. While Congress has cut federal funding for horse meat inspection, it cannot control state meat inspection expenditures. Larson told Need to Know that his bill is “a symbolic first step” toward renewed horse slaughter in Nebraska, though he noted that the bill would also benefit “small farmers with more niche products such as bison or elk” by allowing them to process and market their meat locally.

Twenty-seven other states currently run their own meat inspection agencies, whose inspectors must enforce USDA standards or higher. None of these states currently process horse meat.

State-inspected meat does not carry the USDA’s federal stamp of approval, necessary for the export of meat over state or international lines, except under specific conditions laid out in the 2008 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill allows for state-inspected plants with 25 employees or fewer to accept federal supervision in exchange for a federal certification which would allow meat from those plants to cross state borders. That program would be critical to the success of the Nebraska horse processing industry, which would need to reach international markets to be economically viable.

Nonetheless, horse processing remains illegal, a USDA spokesperson told Need to Know in an e-mailed statement. Under the program set forth in the Farm Bill, state processing plants are required to follow federal regulations. According to the USDA, Congress’s decision to cut funding for horse inspection “effectively prohibits horse slaughter” on a federal level, which means that any state participating in the federal inspection program would also be required to prohibit horse slaughter.

If Larson’s bill passes in Nebraska, the stage will be set for a battle between the state and the federal government over the legality of horse slaughter. Larson is ready to fight. “This is a states’ rights issue,” he says. “It’s time that the states stick up for themselves on a variety of issues.”

Opponents of LB305, which will be up for debate in the Nebraska legislature as soon as next week, include animal rights activists who oppose horse slaughter on ethical grounds. Nancy Perry, vice-president of government affairs at the Humane Society of the United States and a prominent voice against horse slaughter, says that allowing horse processing plants to reopen in Nebraska would challenge “civil society’s approach to how we treat horses” and constitute animal cruelty.

“There is a special cruelty involved with the act of shifting their status midlife,” Perry said. If your horse is suffering, she said, don’t let its life end at the slaughterhouse. “It’s more humane to have your horse euthanized quietly, gently, at home, than to put it through that horrible process.”

LB305’s supporters also claim the ethical high ground in the debate, arguing that the end of horse processing in the United States has created a glut of unwanted horses that are left to die of starvation and neglect.

But Perry says that the poor economy, not closing slaughterhouses, has caused the recent spike in unwanted horses. She believes that animal rescue organizations can help turn that trend around. “We need people who go in and work with the owners to help alleviate the suffering,” she said.

She noted that horses kept as pets are routinely treated with medicines considered unsafe for human consumption and not used on animals raised for meat. Questions about the safety of horse meat have led to strict inspection policies in Canada and the European Union.

Some animal rights advocates say that untrained slaughterhouse workers would not be able to deal humanely with horses, whose frantic reactions to confinement make them difficult to kill quickly or painlessly.

Larson and other supporters of the bill claim that horses can be killed as humanely as any other animals. Texas A&M University animal behavior professor Ted Friend, who observed horse behavior in American processing plants before 2006, agrees. “Actually, many of the horses going in are fairly tame and are accustomed to humans,” he told Need to Know, “which cattle are not.” Despite our cultural objection to the practice, he said, it can be done without causing undue suffering for the animals. “We could do it well, you know, and they deserve it.”

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