In the wake of the European scandals over unlabeled horse meat turning up in prepared foods, the issue of horse slaughter in the United States has returned to the headlines this week. Horse slaughter has essentially been banned in the United States since 2007, when Congress passed an appropriations bill that specifically prevented the USDA from using funds to inspect horse-slaughter plants. Horses processed for meat in this country must by law have USDA inspection. Congress dropped the ban in 2011, but USDA has yet to approve any horse plants for inspection through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

This week, several news stories have brought the controversial issue back to the forefront, with the added twist regarding concerns over horsemeat surreptitiously entering the U.S. food supply. This week’s story angles include:

  • A plant in New Mexico reportedly is close to gaining USDA approval for horse slaughter.
  • Protest groups assembled in Oklahoma City where the federal Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee is meeting and where the Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill to end the state’s 50-year ban on horse slaughter.
  • The Obama administration reportedly is urging Congress to reinstate the federal ban on FSIS inspection for horse plants.

In addition to to the usual animal-rights groups, opponents of horse slaughter include many horse owners who view horses as companion animals rather than food animals. Many consumers also have opposed the practices as there is no historical tradition of eating horse meat in this country. When horses were commercially slaughtered in the United States, virtually all the meat was exported.

Supporters of horse slaughter include some horse associations and other livestock groups. The ban, they say, has led to neglect and mistreatment of old, unwanted horses, and thousands are shipped long distances for slaughter in Mexico. Some cattlemen and other horse owners see humane slaughter as the best alternative for old horses.

According to a New York Times article this week, Valley Meat Company in Roswell, New Mexico could gain FSIS inspections for horse slaughter within the next two months. The company filed a lawsuit against USDA last fall, and according to one of the company’s lawyers quoted in the Times article, the Justice Department asked for a 60-day extension for its response to the suit and indicated the USDA will approve inspections during that time.

In Oklahoma meanwhile,  news reports say groups such as the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign gathered this week to protest horse slaughter and the government’s policy for rounding up wild horses, many of which are held on Oklahoma. Meanwhile, two bills reportedly are moving through the Oklahoma House and Senate that would end the state’s ban on horse slaughter.

If Oklahoma ends its ban, plants in the state still would need FSIS inspectors, and according to a USDA source quoted in the Times article, the Obama administration is pressuring Congress to reinstate the federal ban.

The recent outcry over horsemeat substituted for beef in number of prepared products in Europe adds a new element to the debate as people voice concerns over similar mix-ups here. USDA inspection and the export of virtually all U.S. horsemeat would minimize that risk, but not eliminate it.

In the Times article, R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard expresses his group’s support for U.S. horse slaughter, saying cattlemen need access to humane slaughter for horses that become too old or weak to work on ranches. In response, Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle, who is opposed horse slaughter, says support from the cattle industry would be self-destructive due to the risk of horsemeat entering the U.S. food supply, and the ensuing damage to beef demand.

I must admit, it’s the first time I recall Pacelle implying such concern for U.S. beef producers or beef demand.