Horse slaughter is never a pleasant topic to consider, and it often raises a host of emotions from people on both sides of the debate. Still, it is a fact of life, and most horse owners, at some point, face the question of what to do if a horse needs to be euthanized. Slaughterhouses used to be a popular option, but legislation dating back a number of years all but eliminated horse slaughter houses on U.S. soil. Recently, though, there have been some developments within the horse slaughter industry, which may bring about some major changes. Consequently, every horse owner should be aware of what’s been going on.
When we last considered the issue of horse slaughter, we acknowledged the fact that the lack of slaughter houses in the United States has had the consequence of increasing the shipment of horses from the United States to foreign countries and in particular, Mexico and Canada, for slaughter. Sale and transport of horses to these countries for slaughter is legal and in fact, about 87 percent of the horses in Mexico’s slaughterhouses come from the United States. Once slaughtered, the meat is then butchered and sold for human consumption. It’s big business and can be very profitable for the slaughterhouses and all those involved. Unfortunately, for those concerned with the welfare and humane treatment of the horse, the results have been devastating. Regrettably, the process of shipment to and slaughter in foreign countries is not effectively regulated. The horses often endure horrific conditions during transport, treated in many instances as if they were already dead, not given adequate food, water, or rest. Once they arrive at the slaughter house, the actual process is brutal, to say the least. It has been enough to shock the conscience even of those who would not consider themselves to be animal rights advocates.
Over the years, the production of horsemeat from American horses has come under increasing scrutiny. Concerns have arisen over the safety of the meat produced and of course, the humane treatment of the animals. A series of audits performed by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office has uncovered a plethora of animal welfare concerns in Mexico’s slaughterhouses. They have also uncovered a number of safety issues with the horsemeat produced for human consumption. Horses raised in the United States are not raised as food animals. Consequently, they are not subject to the same FDA regulations that would apply to chickens, cattle and other livestock. Horses in the U.S. that are kept for sport or recreation are often administered a variety of drugs and medications over the course of their lifetime. Some of these substances have been proven to be unsafe for human consumption.
The concerns over animal welfare and food safety have now led the European Commission to suspend the import of horsemeat from Mexico to the European Union. The suspension was voted on in December of 2014 and took effect in January of this year. Since the majority of horsemeat produced in Mexico is exported to Belgium, France, Italy and other EU nations, this will have a major effect on the industry. The Mexican slaughter houses will lose their primary markets. Tens of thousands of the horses slaughtered in Mexico come from the United States. Therefore, the ripple effect here in the U.S. is bound to be felt. If Mexico cannot sell the horsemeat they produce, they will no longer accept horses from the United States. Even if they find an alternate market for their product, it will likely be nowhere near as large as the market provided through the EU. Exactly what will happen to all those U.S. horses once Mexico no longer accepts them into their slaughterhouses?
This development has, in turn, given new fuel to the debate over slaughterhouse in the United States. Advocates of American slaughterhouses argue that having properly regulated facilities here in the United States would be much more humane for the animals and would produce a safer product. The process would be subject to government regulation. The animals would not have to endure the deplorable conditions of foreign transport and the means of slaughter would be more humane and less brutal than in foreign facilities. On the other side of the fence, those opposed to the operation of slaughter houses here in the United States argue that regulation would be difficult and prohibitively expensive. To support their argument, they point to the poorly run slaughterhouses that currently supply our beef, chicken and pork products. In addition, there would still be concerns over the safety of the meat produced through an American run slaughterhouse since the same problems regarding the use of drugs and medications on our horses would continue to exist. Also, even today, predatory slaughterhouses concerned only with making money attend auctions to acquire young and healthy horses specifically for slaughter, often outbidding legitimate owners and rescues. Opponents fear that this practice will increase if slaughterhouses are legitimized on American soil.
Last year, the Federal Appropriations Bill for 2015 renewed a ban on the use of tax dollars for the inspection of horse slaughterhouses. The ban expires this September. If allowed to expire, given the impending issues regarding the transport and slaughter of horses in Mexico, horse slaughterhouses will likely emerge in full force on U.S. soil. As mentioned, there are many people, including some in powerful positions, who are against this happening. Consequently, a new bill was introduced this year (Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2015, a/k/a “SAFE,” H.R. 1942; S1214). This bill, if passed, would permanently ban slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. It would also prohibit the export of horses to other countries for slaughter.
Both sides of the debate have valid points. One of the main considerations is, without the viable option of slaughterhouses, either foreign or domestic, what happens to horses who are old, sick, lame, or simply unwanted? Horse rescues and sanctuaries are a good alternative, but we’re talking about thousands of horses every year. Do we have enough rescues and sanctuaries to accommodate that number?
Right now, it’s a waiting game to see what will happen to the SAFE bill that has been introduced. We’ll also be watching for the ripple effect of the EU suspension of exported horsemeat from Mexico. Whichever side of the debate you are on, though, you should at the very least keep abreast of these important developments and make your voice heard by contacting your local government representatives.