By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The discovery of horse meat in various products in Europe has rekindled a discussion of how soon horses may be slaughtered again in the United States.
The answer is unknown: Two applications to open new slaughterhouses in New Mexico and Missouri remain under review by the USDA, but neither planned facility appears close to opening its doors.
Horse slaughtering in the United States ended in 2007 when federal lawmakers installed a funding ban that prevented USDA inspections of plants, a federal requirement of any meat processed in the country. But that funding ban was lifted during the fall of 2011 in large part because of concerns that cases of horse abuse, neglect and abandonment had risen significantly.
Since the 2007 ban, about 140,000 horses annually have been shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report; the meat is shipped overseas for consumption in Italy, France, Belgium and some Asian countries.
Horse meat in some countries remains popular, known for its sweetness, lower fat and high protein levels, said Dave Duquette, an Oregon horse trader and president of the United Horsemen Front group.
“We’re real close to getting some processing plants (in the U.S.) up and running, but there are no inspectors because the USDA is working on protocols,” Duquette said. “We believe very strongly that the USDA is going to bring inspectors online directly.”
Illinois was the last state that had an operating slaughterhouse before Belgium-based Cavel International, Inc. in DeKalb closed its doors in 2007. As of last week, only California and Illinois are states that have outright bans on horse slaughtering.
Legislation last week in Oklahoma to allow for horse slaughter was approved by both the state House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature; other bills are pending in a handful of states, including Wyoming, where state Rep. Sue Wallis (R-District 52) is a strong supporter of reinstating the process in the U.S.
She’s president of a new company called Unified Equine, which is behind the two applications now pending before the USDA. One is for a plant in New Mexico, the other for one in Rockville, Mo.
In a statement, USDA spokesman Brian K. Mabry said the agency is prepared to reinstate inspections, and has funding to do so, once a facility wins local and state approval – if necessary – and is closer to opening.
“Following a decision by Congress in November 2011 to lift the ban on horse slaughter, two establishments, one located in New Mexico and one in Missouri, have applied for a grant of inspection exclusively for equine slaughter,” Mabry said. “The Food Safety and Inspection Service is currently reviewing those applications.”
Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos has renovated his small plant in Roswell, N.M., to handle the slaughter of 20-25 horses a day, but so far he has faced a mountain of legal challenges getting the plant local and state approval. Gov. Susana Martinez has said repeatedly she will forever oppose its opening, citing the state’s and country’s cultural love for horses.
Similar local objections continue to stymie Wallis’ plans for the Rockville site as well, but she remains undaunted. She says the process of sending horses to Mexico is inhumane, and a well-inspected facility in the United States would be a much more acceptable method.
The Humane Society of the United States, which fought for the original funding ban on inspections, stated it won’t give up its push to ensure horse slaughtering doesn’t restart in America. Wayne Pacelle, the group’s president, said it stands ready to sue the USDA.
The issue has come to the forefront again in light of reports that several European countries discovered horse meat in various products, including the popular Swedish-based retailer IKEA’s meatballs.
The store has since stopped selling the product temporarily, and spokeswoman Mona Liss said meatballs it sold in 38 U.S. stores contain only beef and pork from a supplier in the United States, and never contained horse meat.