Congress imposed a back-door ban on horse slaughter in 2006 to try to improve humane conditions, but a new government report says it has backfired and the same horses are now being exported for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and they likely are suffering more along the journey.
The Government Accountability Office said the policy has led to "unintended consequences" such as depressed prices for all horses and an increase in reports of animal neglect, abuse and abandonment. GAO said Congress and the Obama administration may need to revisit the entire issue.
"Those horses are traveling farther to meet the same end in foreign slaughtering facilities where U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply," GAO said in unusually blunt language that said that the horses are sometimes shipped in too-small containers for hundreds of miles, and that the inspection regime is too lax to help.
Horse meat is regularly used for consumption by circuses and zoos, and it is now sent to Eastern Hemisphere countries where it is an accepted food. But slaughter is a prickly issue in the U.S., where animal-rights activists and some horse lovers pushed to close slaughterhouses and ban exports.
Rather than a total halt, though, Congress eliminated funding for inspections of horses in transit and of slaughterhouses. Initially, three slaughterhouses paid for inspections themselves, though by late 2007 they had closed down because of state laws, and horse slaughter ended in the U.S.
Still, that just shifted the market to neighboring countries, and the horses that once were destined for U.S. slaughter are now sent across the border.
In 2010, about 138,000 horses were exported for slaughter, and another 30,000 horses were shipped for other purposes, though some of those were likely sent to feedlots to be fattened for later slaughter.
Nobody appears happy with the current half-baked solution.
GAO said policymakers could either go back to the previous state of affairs, when slaughter was allowed and created a market for surplus horses, or go the other direction and ban export of horses for slaughter.
For Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, that's not much of a choice.
"Given the iconic role horses have played in our nation's history and the overwhelming opposition of the American people to the slaughter of horses, I believe the latter option is the moral choice and one that most Americans would support," he said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Moran sponsored an extension of the inspection ban, and it was included in the agriculture spending bill that passed the House last week. The Senate is taking a much slower approach to this year's spending bills, so it's unclear whether its legislation will include the same provision.
But Rep. Adrian Smith, a Nebraska Republican who has fought to change the rules, said a ban is costing jobs and hurts the horse industry.
"The GAO report makes it clear ending horse processing has had a detrimental effect on both the economy and animal welfare," he said. "In light of this information, Congress should re-evaluate this misguided policy to allow responsible horse management which would create jobs, generate revenue and strengthen a struggling horse industry."
The Humane Society of the U.S. has been calling for a full ban on export for years, and said the audit's findings back it up.
Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the group, disputed claims that no slaughter will lead to more unwanted horses, saying the market is controlled by demand, not supply.
"We contend that the number of horses going to slaughter is not a function of the number of horses needing homes, it's a reflection of the demand for horse meat abroad," he said.
He said the economy has been the key factor in spurring horse neglect, not an oversupply of horses.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, has introduced legislation for an outright ban on both horse slaughter here and export for slaughter elsewhere.
"There is almost no market for horse meat in the United States, and the majority of Americans oppose the practice of horse slaughter," she said.
The report also recommends that the Agriculture Department issue long-delayed rules that would better protect horses during transport, and Mrs. Landrieu said she'll work to get those rules put into place.
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