Slaughter Industry Interrupted by EU Ban

Horse slaughter plants in the United States are operating on a month by month basis because of a dispute between the European Union (EU) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"We are just a pawn in a much larger political game," says Jim Weems of Texas, the official spokesman for three U.S. horse slaughter plants. The big picture involves a political tug of war between the United States and Europe over trade in general, he says. The root of the immediate problem, however, involves the export of U.S. beef. The European Union has insisted that all beef and other red meat, including horse meat, from the United States must be tested and shown to be free of hormones and other residues. Hormones are normally not used with horses, but growth hormone implants are common with beef in the United States. The EU requires that samples be taken from shipments of red meat and analyzed by approved laboratories for residue content. Before the product is shipped, USDA must sign an export statement declaring that the red meat has been tested and is residue-free.  

The current problem began in July of 1998 when the EU sent a delegation to the United States to visit the three laboratories that were testing the red meat samples prior to shipment. The delegation decided that the three laboratories were not capable of doing the sophisticated testing the EU was demanding.  

The EU served notice that an appropriate laboratory must be found. A year later, in July of 1999, the EU declared that insufficient progress was being made by USDA and served notice that unless a laboratory that met EU standards was utilized, an embargo would be placed on all U.S. red meat shipments. The EU also accused the USDA of certifying that some shipments were residue-free when, in reality, the EU charged, the shipments hadn’t been tested. Eventually, a laboratory in Canada was utilized by USDA, but it, too, was found to be wanting by the EU, so the problem moved back to square one. The horse slaughter plants learned of the problem in July of 1999, Weems said, when they were told by USDA that they must find a laboratory that could handle the sophisticated tests demanded by the EU.

"Suddenly," Weems said, "it was our problem. USDA just dropped it in our lap." In the meantime, the EU set Feb. 15, 2000, as the date for the red meat embargo to go into effect if its requirements weren’t met. The U.S. horse slaughter plants, aware that no real progress had been made in the dispute, prepared to close their doors on Feb. 15. However, just a few days prior to the deadline date, the EU granted an extension until March 15, 2000. The horse slaughter plants have found a laboratory in Europe that meets EU standards, Weems said. However, he added, the problem has been compounded by the fact that the USDA has turned the entire red meat export problem over to a new division.

"There is a new team handling it in Washington," Weems said, "and right now, we don't know where we stand."

The problem is more serious for the horse slaughter industry than for beef and pork, he said, because there is no domestic market for horse meat. Almost all of it is exported to Europe. This means that if the European market is closed, the U.S. horse slaughter plants must close.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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