By:  Date: 10/12/2007

NAIA Newsletter: October 12, 2007

by Cindy Schonholtz, NAIA Director


Does all this sound familiar? It should, because those opposed to a horse processing ban have been telling lawmakers, media and the horse industry that this is exactly what to expect if U.S. processing plants are closed. Now that animal rights groups and ban supporters have been successful in legislative efforts to shut down almost all of the U.S. horse processing plants and legally hobble the last remaining one, we have them to thank for the current sad state of welfare for U.S. horses.

Instead of being processed at USDA regulated plants and transported under regulations the horse industry helped formulate, horses destined for processing can count on longer truck rides and an uncertain fate at Mexican processing plants. Additionally, anyone who pays attention to the news can see that the long drought in many parts of the country and the elimination of commercial U.S. horse processing has created a two-pronged problem: thousands of horses that otherwise would be processed are neglected and in threateningly poor health and condition; and because the processing market has been closed off, these horses are being placed on the active market, causing a drop in horse prices across the board.

Ironically, after the horse processing ban advocates created this situation, they now are calling for the passage of more federal laws: bans to close the borders to shipments for horse processing. This will not eliminate the issues of horse disposal or commerce in horse meat or commercial processing, which were all handled effectively under USDA regulations prior to the processing ban crusade. Please contact your legislators and tell them that this situation was created by proponents of the ban and tell lawmakers to keep them from making things worse!

The Issue

The United States Horse Industry has been struggling to address the issues surrounding the processing of unwanted horses for commercial consumption. As the U.S. becomes increasingly urban and the population becomes less familiar with livestock, food production and agriculture as a whole, the struggle over animal welfare, animal rights and related issues such as horse processing continues to escalate.

The scope of this issue is huge. Based on 2005 figures, the Animal Welfare Council estimates that the annual cost of caring for horses vs. sending them to processing plants would be $226 million. And with the continued care of base year horses piled onto successive years of potential horse processing, that number would grow each year.

The estimated horse population in the U.S. is 9.2 million, according to the American Horse Council. Approximately 1% of the population is now marketed annually for human consumption overseas. The number of U.S. horses being processed has ranged from 65,000 to 100,000 in recent years and the average estimate of annual maintenance costs for a horse is $2340.

These horses are unwanted for a number of reasons: they no longer meet the owner's needs, they have behavioral or health problems or the owner can no longer financially care for the horse. A ban on processing horses will heavily impact the horse industry in four ways: 1) Costs of maintaining unwanted horses; 2) Building and improving infrastructure to sustain unwanted horses; 3) Environmental impact of horse euthanasia and carcass disposal; and 4) Revenue loss from the sale and export of horsemeat.


The issue came to the forefront in 1998 when the voters of California passed a ballot measure making the processing of horses and the commerce surrounding it illegal. While this has been a law for nearly 10 years, there has yet to be a prosecution since there were no enforcement procedures or funding included in the ballot measure. Horses in California are most likely being shipped out of the country to processing plants in Mexico or Canada and to the remaining U.S. plant operating in Illinois. The demand for horsemeat remains high as it is culturally popular in many countries including China, Japan, France, Italy and Mexico. The worldwide production of horsemeat has grown 38% since 1990, largely due to the nutritional value of the meat.

Current Legal and Legislative Status

Animal rights proponents have used the courts to successfully close all of (two total) the horse processing plants in Texas. A law that was enacted in 1949 and not enforced in recent years prohibited the processing or sale of horsemeat in Texas. The proponents of a ban realized this law was not being enforced and sued. After years of legal wrangling, the processing plants were dealt the final blow in May of 2007, when a federal court ruled they were operating illegally and they were forced to close. An effort was made to repeal the law in the Texas State Legislature, but that move failed.

Those in favor of a ban on processing for human consumption, backed by wealthy animal rights groups, were successful in getting a ban passed in Illinois, signed by the Governor in June of 2007. The final plant operating in the U.S., Cavel West in DeKalb, IL, has challenged this law in court and in late July of 2007 was granted permission to reopen pending the hearing of that case in court. Further court proceedings were unfavorable to the plant and this plant also has closed.

Current State of Equine Welfare in the United States

Many factors have led to a very serious situation for equine welfare in the United States. Droughts in many areas led to a serious shortage of hay. Horse auctions suffered from the uncertain status of the processing business and the price of horses has plummeted in many areas. Some auction barns are requiring horse owners to leave a deposit when they leave their horse since so many are just being dropped off. Large scale equine neglect and cruelty cases are being discovered in all parts of the country.

The number of horses being shipped to Mexico for processing has more than quadrupled this year. Those opposed the U.S. bans on the processing of horses have long said that if the plants in the U.S. were closed, the horses that were being shipped to the plants in Texas would simply be shipped to Mexico, and if not shipped for processing per se, would be shipped as pleasure horses or pets and then rerouted to processing plants once inside Mexico.

This is becoming the reality and the horses are enduring much longer trips and are being processing and transported in Mexico without the protective regulations enforced by the USDA. USDA reports show that the number of U.S. horses being exported for processing in Mexico is rising alarmingly. The export report for the week of October 27, 2007 showed for the year to date, 36,190 horses have been exported to Mexico for slaughter, compared to 7,597 reported for the same period in 2006.

The supporters of horse processing bans have claimed that the unwanted horses that were being slaughtered in U.S. plants would simply be absorbed into the rescue population or bought for other purposes, but this is clearly not the case. The current federal bans, if passed, would make it illegal to export horses for processing, leaving more unwanted horses in the U.S. with no outlet and no resources to care for them, or causing massive horse shipments categorized as other than processing for subsequent re-categorization once across the border.

Where to We Go From Here?

From worldwide commerce, nutrition, environmental and ownership standpoints, the U.S. horse industry must figure out a way to inform and educate the public; eliminate ignorance from the policy making process and be recognized as a respected and thoughtful contributor to the resolution of this issue.

Animal rights groups are currently taking advantage of a divided industry to define our issues and get those who agree with them on the slaughter issue into the fold of animal rights – a scary scenario. They will take the undereducated new horse owner and those who wouldn't consider sending their horse to a plant for processing and convince them they should join their animal rights group and contribute money to the cause of stopping the processing of horses for human consumption. The money and membership numbers will not only be used to stop the processing of horses, but will also be applied to the continued stripping of rights of all who utilize animals for recreation, industry or sport. The horse industry must address our issues, educate our owners and work on identifying and solving the problem of the unwanted horse and not allow animal rights groups to chip away at our rights as horse owners.

The U.S. horse industry has addressed this issue in the past through USDA comment and rulemaking. More recently, many of the larger industry organizations and horse councils came together to form the Unwanted Horse Coalition. This group is identifying reasons for the unwanted horse, creating education campaigns for the horse industry regarding unwanted horses and is working on developing effective real world solutions. Hopefully, this effort is not too little too late, because if additional federal bans pass that reach farther and restrict other aspects of commerce associated with the processing of horses, the U.S. is not prepared with the infrastructure, funding or other resources to care for the hundreds of thousands of unwanted horses or those otherwise destined for commercial use that will not have an outlet in the processing industry. The one definite fact is that the welfare of horses in the United States and the rights of those who own them are in serious jeopardy.

NAIA wishes to thank the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), the Animal Welfare Council and the American Horse Council for information contained in this article.


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