03/15/2013 4:01PM

Jay Hovdey: Slaughter once again a hot, polarizing topic


So it’s once again into the breach, with federal legislation that would effectively ban the horse slaughter business in the United States introduced this week in Washington, D.C., by a collection of senators and representatives who would give the effort a gloss of bipartisan suport, if there still is such a thing.

The Safeguard American Food Exports Act (SAFE) is sponsored by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. Jan Shakowsky (D-Ill.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.). Positioned to amend the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, the bill first will be taken up by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

On the face of it, the SAFE Act seems timed to take advantage of the international uproar over the contamination of some packaged European foods with unregulated horse meat. In fact, the bill has been in the works for the better part of a year and finds itself injected into a equally heated domestic climate, with a lawsuit effort in New Mexico to reopen a slaughterhouse and legislation moving rapidly to encourage a slaughter industry in the state of Oklahoma.

There is not now nor ever has been a federal ban on horse slaughter. In fact, there is a thriving horse slaughter business in the U.S. even though slaughter plants have been idle since 2007, when USDA inspections were defunded. Estimates indicate that upward of 150,000 horses of all breeds are purchased and hauled across state lines to slaughter facilities in Mexico and Canada each year, some of it done legally, some of it not, depending on where the horses originate and which state lines are crossed.

The defunding for inspections was lifted in 2011, based largely on conclusions drawn from a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that cited anecdotal evidence from veterinarians as to a growing number of abandoned horses. Ever since then there have been efforts to get the horse slaughter industry rolling again.

Polls indicate that around 80 percent of Americans oppose the slaughter of horses and are even surprised it is an issue. For most of those polled I would imagine the idea is abstract, residing in the same morally distasteful category as child labor or blatant racial discrimination.

However, the reality of horse slaughter draws sharp battle lines between those who support slaughter as a justifiably monetized end-use for a domestic animal and those who oppose the practice as a cruel violation of a deeply held cultural taboo. The introduction of the SAFE Act means those sides will be gearing up again, so in the spirit of following what is sure to be a fascinating political process, here are a couple of spectator tips:

Give a wide berth to anyone who uses the word “process” or “harvest” each time you ask them about “slaughter.” Processing is to slaughter what “enhanced interrogation” is to torture, as in:

“AQHA believes that reinstituting domestic horse processing will improve the economics of the horse industry by reintroducing a base price for horses and it will give owners one more option to have available should they need it,” according to former American Quarter Horse Association president Peter J. Cofrancesco.

Question the assumption that the lack of a domestic horse slaughter industry over the past six years has resulted in an increase of mistreated and abandoned horses. As Vickery Eckhoff writes in Forbes.com:

“The argument tying abandonment to slaughter is being used specifically because nobody knows where the horses come from. Nobody ever mentions the more likely motivation that someone might wish to avoid taking them to auction because they are afraid they will go to slaughter, or they are afraid their sorry condition will be seen and reported.”

And do not be surprised to learn that the American Association of Equine Practitioners, supposedly representing the industry’s front-line veterinarians, is just fine with the idea of domestic horse slaughter, at least according to its latest position statement:

“The AAEP recognizes that the processing of unwanted horses is currently a necessary aspect of the equine industry, and provides a humane alternative to allowing the horse to continue a life of discomfort and pain, and possibly inadequate care or abandonment.”

But do give the AAEP extra credit for working both “processing” and “unwanted horses” into its party line.

In the past, there have been some groups in the Thoroughbred racing industry coming off a little wishy-washy over wholehearted support of an end to the U.S. horse slaughter business, despite the towering influence of activist owner-breeders like the late John Hettinger. With the introduction of SAFE, they have another chance to step up. When contacted this week National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop seemed to be heading that way.

“The NTRA opposes the slaughter of Thoroughbreds for human consumption,” Waldrop wrote in an email communication. “We have not taken a position on the most recent legislation but will continue to focus our efforts on providing all horse owners with safe, reliable retirement and retraining alternatives.”

Anyone who has read this space in the past knows where this reporter stands, which is firmly alongside those who view horse slaughter for human consumption as a fundamental violation of a promise made to a sentient creature who is bred and raised to be a domestic companion or a performance athlete. Yes, they cost a lot, they get sick, and they sometimes hang in the shadow of the wire with a pick five on the line. They still deserve a decent end to a life they did not choose.