Inside D.C.

USDA Stumbles on Horse Slaughter

No one can argue USDA doesn’t have enough issues on its plate. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is learning Farm Bill 101; he’s trying to make sequester work, and seemingly every other week another member of the Secretary’s subcabinet team resigns – Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan a month ago, then Undersecretary for Rural Affairs Dallas Tonsager, and this week Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and environment. Add to this the speechifying, meetings, testimony and other administrative functions of the secretary, and you have a busy, busy guy.

So it begs the question: Why would USDA – either through original thinking or instruction from the White House – decide to abandon its appropriately neutral position on horse slaughter in the U.S., and add an 11th-hour addendum to the President’s budget asking Congress to withhold any money for paying inspectors at horse processing plants?

I’m sure if a formal question is put to the Secretary – and there will be questions April 16, when he appears before House Appropriations Committee to justify USDA’s FY2014 budget request – he’ll cite tight resources, a priority on major species inspection and slaughter, etc. However, that doesn’t mitigate the fact the defunding decision is less a fiscal than political statement.

The issue of whether horse slaughter should be legal in the U.S. has been around for over a decade. It’s an issue borne out of animal rights philosophy – pushed hard by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and a lot of Hollywood folks – and is justified by the moral argument Americans don’t/shouldn’t eat horse meat, and a perception of the horse as a species superior to others we raise and kill for food.

It’s also one of the most hotly contested emotional issues in the animal rights universe, and one that if mishandled has significant economic consequences. This should of and by itself inform USDA’s decision-making process.

Let’s be clear: Horse slaughter is legal in the U.S., save in a few states. The reopening of horse processing plants was blocked until 2011 by appropriations bill language withholding federal funding to pay inspectors. Ignored in the storm of “noble beast” and ethical superiority arguments are several salient issues that can’t be ignored, including the private property rights of horse owners; the potential economic stimulus and employment potential in rural America from a reestablished horse processing industry; the recapture of a $100-million horse meat export market; a lack of professional horse sanctuaries so hence, the declining welfare of abandoned and neglected horses – now totaling by various estimates anywhere from 150,000-300,000 – and, finally, the 20% annual increase in feral horses and their destruction of land and Native American culture out West.

The reality is USDA-regulated stunning and processing is the most humane method of culling this population. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, says eliminating horse slaughter has significantly and negatively impacted horse welfare in this country. Heck, even HSUS allows “euthanasia” is an acceptable means of controlling the unwanted horse population; you just can’t sell or eat the meat.

While farmers and ranchers are justifiably outraged by any federal government move messing with their rights and the federal meat inspection system, other severely affected factions are entering this debate. One of the most compelling letters I’ve seen on this issue is one sent last month by the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Wappanish, Washington, to Vilsack and President Obama, explaining why it worked to remove appropriations language preventing USDA-inspected horse processing. Here’s an excerpt:

“…the Yakama Reservation is literally overrun by with what some call wild horses. We believe it more accurate to refer to these horses as feral. Our biologists estimate we have over 12,000 feral horses on our Reservation. Through overgrazing, destruction of stream banks and the intimidation of species of native animals that we are trying to reintroduce…these feral horses are doing very serious environmental damage to our homeland…many of our people are impoverished, and if they can generate a little income by selling some of this ever-growing herd and helping us to cull our feral horse population, they are doing themselves and our land base a huge service…we should not manage these horses based on purely emotional arguments, story books or movies…there is a market for horse meat in many parts of the world, and if we can create jobs, humanely reduce overpopulated herds, and feed others, it is absurd to prohibit it.”

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