GAO Report on Horse Processing Released

The demise of the horse processing industry in the U.S. has not prevented horses from being sold for slaughter and has contributed to a rise in equine neglect and abuse incidents, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued Wednesday (June 22). The GAO is an independent nonpartisan agency established to provide Congress with objective, fact-based information intended to improve performance and accountability of federal agencies.

Horse processing has not taken place in the U.S. since 2007, when the last processing facilities operating in Texas and Illinois closed after Congress stripped the USDA of funding for food safety inspections at processing plants. The USDA continued to provide inspections on a fee-for-service basis until a federal judge ruled against the inspection for fee arrangement. Since then horses have been transported to Mexico and Canada for processing.

During its consideration of the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010, the U.S. Senate Appropriations' Committee ordered the GAO to study how the horse processing plant closures have affected the U.S. horse industry. The study authors investigated how processing plant closures have influenced the number of horses sold, exported, adopted, or abandoned in the United States, how the closures have affected farm income and trade, and how the USDA has overseen the transport of horses to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.

In its report released on June 22, the GAO concluded that from 2006 to 2010 the number of horses exported to Mexico for processing rose 660%. The number of horses exported to Canadian processing plants increased 148% during the same time period.

"As a result, nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010--nearly 138,000--as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased," the authors reported.

The plant closings were also responsible for an 8-21% decline in market prices for low- and medium- priced horses, or those that are most likely to be brought to slaughter, they added.

Meanwhile, the number of horses involved in animal cruelty and abandonment investigations in some states increased since processing plants closed in 2007, according to the authors. In Colorado cruelty investigations increased more than 60% from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009, the authors noted. Officials in California, Texas, and Florida also reported an increase in the number of animals abandoned on private property since 2007.

"State, local, tribal, and horse industry officials generally attributed these increases in neglect and abandonments to cessation of domestic slaughter and the economic downturn," the report authors explained.

As of a result of its findings, the GAO recommended that Congress either reinstate funding for USDA food safety inspections at horse processing plants, or ban horse slaughter in the U.S. altogether. Legislation addressing those possibilities has already been introduced. In May the U.S. House of Representatives amended the Agricultural Appropriations Act of 2012 to continue the defunding of USDA horse processing plant inspections. In June Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced SB 1176, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011. If passed the bill would amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit the sale or transport of horses or equine parts in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent of processing them for human consumption.

Meanwhile, individuals on both sides of the horse processing issue are reacting to report's findings.

Equine welfare advocate Jerry Finch, president of the equine protection organization Habitat for Horses, said the GAO report contained a pro-slaughter bias. He criticized the study for failing to consider how the intractable recession and overbreeding have affected the horse industry.

"Nothing in that report had an ounce of verifiable fact and a true representation of the actual state of the horse economy and the slaughter issue," Finch said.

Processing proponent Wyoming State Representative Sue Wallis said she supported the report and its recommendation to reinstate USDA horsemeat inspection funding.

"For the most part, we agree with their conclusions," Wallis said. "We will continue to advocate for the responsible and regulated inspection of horses and horsemeat in the United States where our agencies can ensure the welfare of horses."

It is unlikely that the GAO report will be the final word on equine welfare issues as lawmakers and equine welfare advocates seek ways to boost the U.S. horse industry and promote equine welfare. The full report is available online at www.gao.gov.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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