- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Recently proposed federal legislation (HR 503) calls for a ban on the three remaining horse-meat processing, or “slaughter” plants in our country, but the Horse Welfare Coalition of 64 veterinarian and agriculture groups, oppose the bill. As a former member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and a former horse owner, I urge folks to focus on facts, so emotional rhetoric doesn’t cloud the truth.

First, horses are brought to these federally regulated plants because the animals have outlived their usefulness or for other reasons are unwanted.

Many owners can’t afford cremation, veterinarian-administered euthanasia, or pickup by a rendering plant. Burying a horse carcass is outlawed in many areas. The “slaughter” plants provide horse owners with the humane, legal euthanasia option without having to pay for it. If owners don’t want their horses to go to the plants, they simply don’t sell them at an auction.

The vision that, without slaughter plants, unwanted horses would simply be “laid to rest in peace” isn’t realistic. Experts agree: If you take away the slaughter plant option, thousands of unwanted horses will end up in inhumane conditions. Those that survive long enough to receive euthanasia will end up in a rendering facility, at a cost to the rescue facility or owner.

The slaughter plants targeted by HR 503 pay horse owners about $400 for their horses. Many owners support this option because they can recoup some of their investment, and have peace of mind knowing the euthanasia is humanely administered and regulated.

Slaughter plants provide U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected horse meat to zoo animals across our nation. If HR 503 passes, lions, tigers and other animals will lose this access to the only federally inspected source of special proteins their bodies need to mimic what they would eat in the wild.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded “owner abuse or neglect is the primary cause of severe welfare problems in horses arriving at slaughter plants” — not transportation issues or other slaughter industry practices.

According to USDA’s own enforcement records, each year the government is investigating more allegations, but finding fewer incidents of mistreatment of horses. There is current evidence in writing from USDA that horse mistreatment by the plants very rarely if ever occurs. I have yet to see any current evidence from the opposition that mistreatment by the plants is a real issue.

These are the facts, but emotions run high. Animal “rights” groups are lining their pockets with donations secured by exploiting this issue. The groups throw sensationalistic photos in the faces of those who don’t have the stomach for it and ask them to give money so they can “save” the horses.

Many photographs and videos posted on these groups’ Web sites are not representative of the slaughter practices used in plants today. They portray practices already banned by Congress and the administration. Supervised humane euthanasia; food, water, and space requirements during transport —those are already the law. Where is the evidence any of these photos/videos came from the three plants?

The Humane Society is a $61 million organization (larger than all three processing plants put together). It has spent countless dollars on public relations and marketing efforts urging a slaughter ban that would result in the need for another 2,700 equine rescue facilities and $124 million for the first year alone, according to equine practitioners. Is the Humane Society prepared to pay for the widespread impact of this bill, so the welfare of our nation’s horses can truly be protected?

Some people choose not to eat pork, but I do. Most Americans do not consume horse meat. But our friends in Canada, Europe, and Japan do. By meeting their demand, we are securing U.S. jobs and increasing U.S. exports. In fact, in 2003, we exported nearly 9,817 metric tons of horse meat valued at nearly $28 million. As former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Jack Block recently said, “If the French want to buy our horse meat, sell it to them.”

The Congressional Research Service has looked into what would happen if owners lose the slaughter option. In May 2004, CRS noted “a key concern expressed by a number of equine groups is whether the existing U.S. horse sanctuaries have adequate resources to absorb the large numbers of animals.”

Even the American Horse Protection Association admits this about rescue facilities: “No nationwide standard-setting or oversight system is in place.” Habitat for Horses Inc., says: “We are constantly receiving complaints about so called ‘rescues’ that are very dishonest in their treatment of horses and donations.”

To the uneducated eye, this legislation looks like the right thing to do for our nation’s horses. I invite folks to visit commonhorsesense.com to see how the ban will actually encourage more pain, suffering and neglect.

The only groups that will benefit are those that use horses to solicit donations. We urge Americans not to be fooled by this Trojan horse.

Charles Stenholm, a former Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas, is a senior government-affairs adviser at Olsson, Frank and Weeda PC. The Washington law firm represents the three U.S. horse-meat processing plants: Beltex, Dallas Crown and Cavel.

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