To the slaughter?
Local equine advocate speaks out on federal approval to open a horse-meat processing facility
When Tawnee Preisner circled the perimeter of the Valley Meat Co. slaughterhouse in Roswell, N.M., last month, she could hardly believe her eyes. Cow carcasses—or the remnants thereof—scattered the landscape, skulls clearly visible from the fence line.
“He was not operating a very clean business there when it was operating as a slaughterhouse for cows,” Preisner said recently by phone, referring to plant owner Ricardo De Los Santos. “Is anything going to change just because it’s horses?”
Preisner, co-founder and vice president of Horse Plus Humane Society in Oroville, visited Roswell’s Valley Meat Co. facility to see firsthand where horses could be sent if the slaughterhouse is allowed to reopen. Valley Meat—previously called Pecos Valley Meat Packing Co., a beef-processing plant—closed down for economic reasons, its owners have told the media, though it had been fined for improper carcass disposal, according to a recent New York Times article.
Preisner wasn’t happy with what she saw in New Mexico, and she isn’t happy about a recent federal decision to allow Valley Meat (and another company, Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa) to kill horses for human consumption. That meat likely will be exported to countries in Asia, South America or Europe, where people eat horse in restaurants and at home. (It is illegal to sell horse meat for human consumption in the state of California, but not in all states, such as Florida.)
Horse slaughter was halted in 2007, about two years after federal funding was revoked for inspecting those facilities, which processed an estimated 138,000 equines each year. The majority of that meat was destined for human consumption in other countries. That funding was reinstated in 2011, but Valley Meat Co. is the first plant to receive U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to operate. That happened at the end of June.
Those in favor of horse slaughter, including the American Quarter Horse Association, argue that it offers owners of unwanted horses an option they wouldn’t have otherwise.
A study in 2009 by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, an alliance of equine organizations whose goal is to reduce the number of horses euthanized or sent to slaughter, noted four key reasons for the high number of unwanted horses: the economic downturn, the high cost of euthanasia, a change in breed-demand—and the closure of the nation’s slaughter facilities.
“Horse owners and stakeholders agree closing of processing facilities is a major contributor to the problem,” the study concluded.
So why are people like Preisner—she is by no means alone in her opposition—so up in arms about the possibility of reintroducing horse slaughter to the American landscape? For one, horses are considered companion animals much like cats and dogs here in the United States. Then there’s the issue of humane handling.
“The whole slaughter industry is causing a huge problem,” Preisner said. “It’s a torturous thing for these horses to endure. When they cross over into Mexico, the conditions get even worse.
“But opening slaughterhouses in the United States won’t fix that—they’ll still endure the same amount of horror being transported.”
Her point is one shared by many horse advocates, but it’s debatable, according to several sources at the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees the transport of slaughter animals. With so many more equines being sent across the border and a lack of funding for inspections because of the closure of domestic slaughter facilities, the welfare of slaughter horses is likely much worse now than it was when they were being processed here in the States.
“[N]early the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010—nearly 138,000—as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased,” reads a Government Accountability Office report to Congress looking at unintended consequences of closing domestic slaughterhouses. “Horses are by nature fight-or-flight animals, and when grouped in confinement, they tend to sort out dominance. In the tight quarters of a conveyance, weaker horses are unable to escape from more dominant and aggressive animals and, thus, are more prone to sustaining injuries. … Moreover, once a shipment of U.S. horses has crossed the border into Canada or Mexico, APHIS no longer has authority to oversee their welfare.”
The more humane way to handle unwanted horses, Preisner said, involves educating people about the problem and offering gelding (castration) programs, a huge part of the Unwanted Horse Coalition’s mission.
Horse Plus has rescued nearly 3,000 equines in its 10-year existence. Of those rescued, a portion have been euthanized, Preisner admitted.
“Whenever anyone signs a horse over to us, we explain our policies. If it’s deemed unadoptable, it will be humanely euthanized,” she said. After euthanizing a horse, the organization sends it to a rendering plant. “They [people who surrender their horses] get so upset about that sometimes, but when we picked up that horse, they were going to have to take it to auction.”
Rather than euthanizing a former pet, owners often send their animals to auction, where so-called “killer buyers”—representatives of slaughterhouses or middlemen, according to the Humane Society of the United States—purchase them and ship them to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered.
Since horses in the United States aren’t considered food animals, they are treated with medication, including antibiotics, Preisner said, making them unsuitable for human consumption. “Because of the drugs that are in the horses, there’s really no way to make it a safe meat for humans to eat,” she said.
But those killer buyers are successfully sending horses from U.S. auctions off to be killed, processed and, in many cases, eaten by humans. People in several countries, including Japan, France, China and Mexico, consider horse a viable source of protein. The USDA acknowledges this problem.
“FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] recognizes that most equines presented for slaughter will likely not have been raised for human consumption,” reads the service’s document on usda.gov outlining the inspection of slaughter facilities. “Therefore, FSIS has concerns regarding the potential presence of chemical residues from drugs not previously approved for use in all food animals including equine.”
Valley Meat Co. is still facing several obstacles in its efforts to convert its cattle facility into one that will process horses. Recently, The Associated Press reported that the state of New Mexico denied the plant’s wastewater permit. It also faces opposition by way of a federal lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States, in conjunction with several other agencies.
“It would be nice if we could fix everything overnight,” Preisner said. “Owning an animal is a responsibility.”