02/15/2013 5:55PM

Jay Hovdey: Tangled world of equine slaughter

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In an admirable display of bipartisan harmony, the Agricultural and Rural Development Committee of the Oklahoma Senate voted 9-0 last Tuesday to approve a bill that would allow for the operation of equine slaughterhouses in the state. The measure was passed without questions or debate.

That’s probably for the best. The idea of horse slaughter and the human consumption of horsemeat is not very popular in certain nations of the meat-eating world, where horses have been elevated to the status of companion animals, and eating them remains a cultural taboo on the order of barbequing the household cat or snacking on bits of fried Fido.

Recent tales of horseflesh wandering into the food chains of England and Ireland have run riot in the tabloid press with headlines like “Hoof Done it?” and “Nagging Doubts.” Food safety officials in the United Kingdom have found traces of horse meat in meals served in schools, hospitals, and restaurants, prompting them to recommend that meat from anything that used to walk around should be tested.

To be clear, at the heart of the European horsemeat scandal is an issue of labeling violations more than anything else. Fingers are being pointed in all directions, from slaughterhouses in Romania to wholesalers in the Netherlands and France. The horse as a commercial food animal is widely accepted on the continent. Even in Great Britain, where horsemeat is rarely consumed, an estimated 9,000 horses are killed each year for export.

There have been no active horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. since 2006, when the last one was closed in Illinois and not reopened in the wake of the U.S. Congress defunding the USDA’s horsemeat inspection budget. That defunding was rescinded by the Obama administration in 2011, prompting slaughter proponents in places like Oklahoma to pounce.

In Tennessee, a bill was approved by an agricultural committee in March of 2012 that would have required anyone taking legal action to oppose the operation of an equine slaughter facility to post a bond worth 20 percent of that facility and to be liable for all associated court costs. The bill died without action by the full legislature, but the bill’s author, State Rep. Frank Niceley, was elected to the State Senate last November. Niceley also has proposed arming schoolteachers and has defended cockfighting in Tennessee as a “cultural tradition.”

In Missouri, attempts to get horse slaughterhouses up and running in two different communities were thwarted last year when ownership questions were raised by anti-slaughter activists. Still, there is no law in Missouri against equine slaughter.

In New Mexico earlier this month, a bill was approved in committee to fund a horse slaughter feasibility study by the New Mexico State University. When taken up by the legislature, the bill was defeated. At the same time, a slaughterhouse owner in New Mexico is suing the federal government for dragging its feet in the inspection process.

Communities in Oregon and Washington have recently said no to equine slaughter facilities proposed for their communities, and national polls run in the 80-85 percent range of Americans who oppose the consumption of horsemeat, the slaughter of horses, and transport of horses for slaughter in another country.

Even so, the backers of equine slaughter continue to be emboldened by the perpetuation of the “unwanted horse” idea that animals are being abandoned by the thousands in the face of hard economic times. They suggest that giving strapped horse owners a slaughter option that offers a few bucks to boot is both economically sound and nobly humane. They continue to insist that “we” certainly don’t eat horse meat here in the USofA, but what right do “we” have to dictate the tastes of folks in foreign lands. Especially if there is a market.

That market, however, is marginally profitable at best, which means the costs involved in the horse meat production chain are cut to the bone in terms of transport safety, slaughter, and the associated environmental clean-up. Little wonder that Great Britain’s equine slaughterhouses are willing to do the killing, but prefer the butchering to be done elsewhere – a deeply ironic twist now that horsemeat processed elsewhere has worked its way into British food.

Since September of 2011 the U.S. Congress has had on its desk HR 2966, which would amend the Horse Protection Act of 1970 “to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling or donation of horses and other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption, and for other purposes.” It’s passage would go along way toward quieting the issue.

In the meantime, there will continue to be rear-guard action at the state level. The Oklahoma slaughterhouse bill was said to have slid easily out of committee because it was revised, according to The Tulsa World, to state that “…meat produced at an equine slaughterhouse would be consumed only outside the state and that animals would be allowed to come to a facility only through a livestock auction and a livestock dealer, meaning horses couldn’t be sold directly to a slaughterhouse.”

There you are. In Oklahoma slaughter backers only want to be like England, a place where an unpleasant service is offered, for a price. As characterized by their elected representatives, proud Sooners wouldn’t touch the stuff. But if given the chance they will provide.