Updated on 09/17/2011 11:22PM

USDA takes law into its own hands

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A decision announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture dispels once and for all the quaint notion that a modern democratic government - in this case the government of the United States of America - exists to serve the will and welfare of its citizens.

Folks, it looks like we're on our own.

Backed by overwhelming support on both sides of the Congressional aisles, along with top-heavy poll numbers in opposition to the issue of horse slaughter, President Bush last year signed off on a budget bill for 2006 that de-funded USDA inspections of slaughterhouses processing horsemeat.

In effect, this figured to put the three remaining U.S. slaughterhouses out of business. There are two in Texas and one in Illinois - all of them foreign-owned - that have been slaughtering horses at a rate of around 80,000 a year. Without federal oversight from the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, both before and after the horse is slaughtered, the meat would be unsaleable to the foreign markets served by the slaughterhouses. At least, that's the way just about everyone interpreted the U.S. Code of Regulations, Title IX, part 302.1(a), which reads:

"Inspection under the regulations in this subchapter is required at every establishment . . . in which any livestock are slaughtered for transportation or sale as articles of commerce."

Seemed simple enough. No budget for inspectors, no inspections. No inspections, no USDA stamp of approval for export. End of slaughterhouse.

But not so fast. The horsemeat slaughterhouses have a $4 million a year business at stake. They will not go quietly. With some aggressive lobbying and creative lawyering, a loophole was devised by which the USDA now claims it can make its inspectors available for private hire by the slaughterhouses. For a fee of $350,000 a year to cover inspection costs, the USDA is willing to facilitate the slaughter of horses.

How many ways does this stink? For starters, it is a perverse form of outsourcing a government task, essentially privatizing a function of a federal agency. Furthermore, the FSIS inspectors - trained and employed by your tax dollars - already have full-time jobs. After all, Americans are among the most carnivorous people on earth. After fulfilling their obligations to verify the health and safety of beef, fish, chicken, and pork processing facilities, when are they supposed to work in a trip to the horsemeat plants? Weekends?

The ban of horse slaughter in the U.S. is one of the few issues that seems to unite left-wing, tree-hugging puppylovers and the steel-eyed, laissez-faire capitalists of the hard right. Check out this, from Michael Markarian of the U.S. Humane Society:

"The USDA is playing games and ignoring the directives of Congress . . . . By granting this 11th-hour bid by the slaughterhouses to re-write the law, the USDA is thumbing its nose at Congress and trying to substitute the judgment of foreign gourmands for the judgment of our elected lawmakers."

And then this, from the editorial page of the arch-conservative Washington Times:

"The USDA is considering a petition from the three foreign-owned slaughter plants to disregard the explicit will of Congress. Astoundingly, the USDA seems prepared to let them do this."

Believe it or not, there are still pockets of resistance to the ban of horse slaughter roaming around the horse industry, giving aid and comfort to a sleazy move like the USDA wants to make.

Chief among them is the American Association of Equine Practitioners, a veterinarian trade group that continues to describe slaughter as "euthanasia at a processing facility" and a "humane alternative to a life of suffering, inadequate care, and possibly abandonment."

A press release issued this week by the USDA on hiring out its inspectors was run verbatim, without reporting or opposing comment, by The Horse magazine on its website, labeled as the "top story." (Note to journalism students: a press release is not a news story.) But no one was surprised. The Horse, which was editorially opposed to the slaughterhouse de-funding bill in the agriculture budget, refers to itself as an "educational partner" of the AAEP.

What the press release leaves out is the fact that there are some very ticked off people in Congress - better known as the elected representatives of the U.S. citizenry - who do not like the idea of a government bureaucracy ignoring the intent of a piece of legislation.

"The agency must cease inspection of horses for slaughter," stated a letter addressed to the USDA and signed by 40 members of the House and Senate. "Failure to do so constitutes willful disregard of clear Congressional intent on the part of the USDA. The agency has absolutely no authority to circumvent a Congressional mandate and effectively rewrite an unambiguous law at the request of the horse-slaughter industry."

Sounds like an old-fashioned Washington, D.C., gunfight, with horses caught right in the middle. The USDA ruling does not go into effect until March 10, which means there is still time for an equally old-fashioned public outcry, as noted by the Washington Times:

"Readers who might not like the idea of a U.S. agency ignoring a law of Congress to placate a few foreign horse slaughterers should voice their concerns to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. Send an e-mail to Mr. Johanns at or call his office at 202-720-3631."

That's "J-o-h-a-n-n-s."