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Opponents of equine slaughter take fight to court and Congress


Federal judge issues temporary restraining order suspending commencement of horse slaughter operations in the U.S.

Getty Images

Valley Meat Co. in New Mexico, and Responsible Transportation in Sigourney, Iowa, have satisfied all federal requirements under the Federal Meat Inspection Act with the intent of opening horse slaughter facilities. This legally requires the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) to grant inspection, subsequently relaunching the horse slaughter industry in America.

However, U.S. District Court Judge M. Christina Armijo issued a temporary restraining order Aug. 2 suspending the USDA’s grants of inspection for horse slaughter operations. As of Aug. 21, Armijo amended the ruling to order the USDA “to suspend or withhold the provision of horse meat inspection services to Valley Meat and Responsible Transportation until further order of the Court.” The restraining order came after New Mexico Attorney General Gary King joined a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups to stop operations at Valley Meat and other facilities. In addition to Valley Meat and Responsible Transportation, an application from Rains Natural Meats in Gallatin, Mo., was being reviewed and close to receiving its grant of inspection by FSIS as well. Since Armijo's ruling however, Responsible Transportation has decided to withdraw its equine permit application.

Domestic equine slaughter has met fierce resistance—from humane groups, politicians, even actor/director Robert Redford. In July, Redford and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson formed the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife. Its first order of business? Join the lawsuit to prevent Valley Meat’s scheduled start Aug. 5. Attorney General King filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit against Valley Meat based on environmental grounds. He charged that the USDA did not conduct a “thorough environmental review” to determine the effect of horse slaughter on human health or the environment before any such facility was given the green light to operate. Judge Armijo agreed.

The facilities’ grants of inspection are now suspended, federal inspectors are barred from further involvement with the facilities and Valley Meat and Reliable Transportation are forbidden from commencing operations. Armijo’s injunction will remain in place for 30 days, at which time the court will decide whether to extend the order. “I am very happy that the judge took into account the public interest, which requires a careful evaluation of all of the risks to our natural environment and to our residents,” King says in a release from his office.

Obstacles to slaughter

Horse slaughter was effectively banned in the United States in 2007 when federal funding for horse slaughter inspection ceased. Congress restored funding in 2011, promptly followed by applications from proposed horse slaughter facilities in Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Valley Meats first applied for a grant of inspection with the USDA in December 2011.

Unhappy with the response he received, Rick de los Santos, owner of Valley Meats, sued the USDA in October this year for delaying the application process. Although Valley Meats has been issued a grant of inspection, according to a USDA spokesperson, the lawsuit has not been dropped. Nor has the USDA’s opposition to domestic equine slaughter for human consumption, despite its legal obligation to provide inspection for such facilities.

“The Department has asked Congress to reinstate the ban,” a USDA spokesperson told dvm360. “Unfortunately Congress has failed to act. FSIS is compelled to carry out its regulatory obligations as required under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), within the resources and statutory parameters that Congress puts in place.”

Valley Meat’s De Los Santos also claims arsonists set fire to his plant in early August, destroying his refrigeration unit. And in addition to fire and federal injunction, Valley Meat’s wastewater permit request was also denied by the New Mexico Environment Department pending a public hearing.

An unwanted problem

Debate continues to stir around the topic of Valley Meat and equine slaughter. Opponents say the act and transport of horses for slaughter is cruel. Proponents of horse slaughter say it is a humane way to control the population of unwanted or abandoned horses while also providing a monetary response to the cost of caring for and disposing of unwanted animals. The Association of American Equine Practitioners (AAEP) regards itself as “pro-welfare,” not pro-slaughter, but believes that without long-term placement for affected horses and solutions to the core issues that contribute to the unwanted horse population, humane euthanasia and processing for human consumption may be an undesirable necessity.

The New Mexico Livestock Board confirms unwanted horses are a problem in the state. There are 11 equine rescue facilities currently licensed by the livestock board to aid in the management of the unwanted population, but they fail to meet the massive need.

“These facilities combined can provide shelter and care to only a couple hundred head at any one time—a drop in the bucket compared to the unknown thousands of unwanted horses fending for themselves on New Mexico’s drought-riddled landscape,” the board stated in an e-mail to dvm360.Persistent drought currently plaguing the West prompted the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in mid-July to truck in 5,000 gallons of water per day, five days a week to four locations across Nevada at a cost of $1,000 per day to wild horse herds. The BLM says in New Mexico 93 percent of the state’s range lands and pastures are in poor or very poor conditions. “As drought conditions continue, wild horses, livestock, and wildlife that rely on rangeland forage and water will face extremely challenging conditions that may leave them in very poor condition,” BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze says in a release. “We are taking action to address these situations as quickly and as effectively as we can, but our options are increasingly limited by conditions on the land.”

The BLM has begun its summer gathering of wild horses and burros in Western public rangelands. “Because of off-range holding capacity limits and funding constraints, the BLM will attempt to gather and remove only 1,300 wild horses and burros this summer,” a BLM statement reads. “Overall, the BLM anticipates removing about 4,800 animals from the range in Fiscal Year 2013, as compared to 8,255 in FY 2012.” Animals removed during the gather season are made available for adoption through the BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption program. Those not adopted will be cared for in long-term and eco-sanctuary pastures.

Beyond annual BLM gathers, when the New Mexico Livestock Board becomes aware of an unwanted horse in New Mexico, an inspector can seize the animal. The board must publicly post all “found” livestock for a period of five days in an effort to identify an owner. At the end of the waiting period, if not claimed, the animal is sold with priority given for purchase or adoption first to the licensed rescue facilities and then for sale via public auction or sealed bid.However, the board says the current model cannot absorb the multitude of unwanted horses in the state. A group of citizens, including the New Mexico Livestock Board, created an “unwanted horse working group” in July 2012 to address the issue. New Mexico Department of Agriculture Director/Secretary Jeff Witte facilitates the discussion when the group convenes. The livestock board reports on horses recently seized; rescues report on current capacity; and range experts offer details on forage conditions across the state.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would explicitly prohibit horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States as well as the export of live animals across the border for slaughter in Canada and Mexico. The bill, titled the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and is backed by the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA).

According to the USDA, 102,260 horses were euthanized for processing in the U.S. in 2006—the last year horse processing plants were open for an entire fiscal year. Since the ban, USDA figures state 160,000 horses are shipped nationwide to Mexican slaughterhouses every year.

And for all the debate now, President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 prohibits funding for the salaries or expenses of USDA personnel to carry out ante mortem inspection of horses designated for slaughter or to regulate the transportation of equine for slaughter therefore reinstating the ban as of Oct. 1, 2013.

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