COLUMBIA - If you've ever felt hungry enough to eat a horse, here's your chance. On Nov. 18, Congress lifted a 5-year ban on funding horse meat inspections. The ban prohibited the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federal funds to monitor meat processing plants that slaughter horses. Since plants that are not inspected by the USDA cannot ship meat to different states, the ban put a stop to domestic horse slaughter.
Although it's been passed for nearly two weeks, the provision stayed out of the public eye until Wednesday. It was a part of a bill that set the fiscal budgets for several departments, including the USDA. The ban was lifted in part to a study done by the Government Accountability Office in June 2011. The report showed that the ban didn't stop the slaughter of American horses, but shifted it to Mexico and Canada instead.
"The GOA report revealed that the lack of horse processing in the U.S. had exacerbated the suffering of horses," Development Director of the nonprofit pro-slaughter group United Horsemen Mindy Patterson says. "It increased the number of deaths, and was the cause of neglect, pain and misery."
Patterson blames the Humane Society for the suffering of horses.
"This was brought on by the Humane Society of the United States that essentially put a stop to horse processing in our country," she says. "They did not deliver on their fundraising promise to help protect American horses. They caused the problem and they did nothing to offer a solution."
"Horse neglect and abandonment existed long before U.S. slaughter plants closed," Michael Markarian, chief program & policy officer at the Humane Society of the United States says in response. "Domestic slaughter did not prevent these irresponsible acts. Horse slaughter should not exist as a grisly crutch for irresponsible owners and breeders whil the majority finds decent and humane outcomes for horses."
Pro-slaughter activists predict new slaughterhouses could open in as little as 30 days, with state approval. The last horse processing plant, which was located in Dekalb, Ill., closed in 2007. As many as 200,000 horses could be slaughtered a year. Multiple groups are interested in opening plants in ten states - Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Patterson says there's a good chance one will open in Missouri. She says there are currently two locations being considered. Slaughtering horses for human consumption will remain illegal in California and Illinois.
But that doesn't mean horse meat will start appearing in U.S. supermarkets anytime soon.
"Right now the plan is for it to be exported to other countries," Patterson says, "That's not to say that pet food won't be utilizing some of our domestic horse meat."
Linda Boats, co-owner of Coats High Ridge Farm believes there needs to be a horse slaughter market.
"There are horses out there that are not useful for anything else," she says. "They're beyond their useful life. What is more humane, to slaughter a horse or have it starve to death?"
Roger Conklin, owner of Roger Conklin Horse & Pony, says this is the best thing to happen to the horse market in years. But he says the public may not be as receptive.
"I think we're a long way down the road from putting horses in supermarkets," he says. "If it was overseas, yeah, but I don't think that will happen here anytime soon. There are not that many people that will eat horse meat."
Patterson says people need to put their emotions aside and view this issue objectively.
"Controversy is a given," she says. "People need to understand the factual circumstances that horses are a part of our agriculture community. This is a necessary component to maintain the health of the horse industry."
"Americans don't eat horses, and they don't want them inhumanely killed in Mexico, Canada or on U.S. soil for export to dinner tables in Asia or Europe," Markarian says.
The Humane Society of the United States supports the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which would ban the slaughter of American horses for human consumption. It's currently pending in Congress.