A Look at the Horror of Horse Slaughter

The USDA says 90% of horses are healthy when they begin their horrific journey to the slaughterhouse. These horses are shipped in cramped, overcrowded transports to the slaughterhouse. They often have no food or water for over 24 hours. In the summer they endure extremely hot temperatures during these transports.

Once at the slaughterhouse, the horses are typically shot in the head. They are then hung by their back legs upside down, many times while they are conscious.

In testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection on July 25, 2006, Christopher J. Heyde, Deputy Legislative Director for Society for Animal Protective Legislation (SAPL) urged lawmakers to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, H.R. 503. (The bill did not become law in that Congressional session and has the same number, H.R. 503, in this session.) Heyde pointed out the numerous polls showing most Americans support an end to horse slaughter for human consumption.

Heyde described the horrific conditions for horses during transport and when they are at the slaughter houses. He testified, "The horses end up at the slaughterhouse in a variety of ways, all unlucky.

Sometimes they are sent by individuals or groups no longer able or willing to care for them. Sometimes they are retired or injured racehorses, riding school or show horses, federally protected wild horses, foals born as a by-product of the Premarin industry, or stolen horses.

"The majority is not actively sold to slaughter by their owners, but instead arrive at the slaughterhouse via livestock auction, often sold by owners unaware of their ultimate fate. Those purchased at auctions by individuals known as "killer buyers" may then be shipped on trailers for as long as 28 hours without water, food or rest".

Heyde described for the Subcommittee his visit to a slaughterhouse, "When I visited a slaughterhouse, there was a double-deck trailer fully loaded with horses from Canada located at the rear of the nondescript facility. The horses filled both rows and were unable to stand normally, forced to keep their heads low. Despite the fact that several of the horses I could see had cuts and blood trailing from their mouths and noses, all looked otherwise healthy and fairly young…. Workers poked some of them with long fiberglass rods through holes on the side of the trailer. The horses, typically very sensitive animals, slid and fell down the ramp, only to be whipped by another worker’s rod. All exhibited "flight" behavior, pacing in prance-like movements with their ears pinned back against their heads and their eyes bulging.

"Once inside the building, I saw more callous workers beat the horses on the nose, forehead, neck, back or hindquarters to get them to move until they entered the kill chute. Egregious acts of cruelty took place right in front of me. Running across the floor of the barn was a grate-covered drain about three feet deep. A section of the grate was missing in one of the stalls through which horses were being forced.

Because they were crammed into a space and panicking, each horse fell into the open hole, unable to get out since the floor was wet and slippery. Workers continued to beat the horses until, following a terrible struggle, they were able to throw their bodies out of this hole. This only stopped once I began to close the grate-only then did the workers take action.

"Just after this first incident and again due to the overcrowding and panic, a large male got one his legs hooked over one of the upper rails of the fence. Workers proceeded to beat him continually until he lunged forward, gouging his leg open on the solid metal fence and forcing his leg free of the rail.

"When the veterinarian and I tried to report the two incidents, we were unable to locate a US Department of Agriculture inspector in the facility. Sadly, the plants that defend their operations are quick to say things are fine within their facilities because USDA inspectors are present to ensure the humane treatment of animals. However, as … ample USDA inspection reports show, cruelty and improper handling is a serious problem.

"In fact, according to a recent General Accounting Office report on the US slaughter industry, ‘the most prevalent noncompliance documented was the ineffective stunning of animals, in many cases resulting in a conscious animal reaching slaughter.’

"Further, USDA is not present to witness the majority of handling of the live animals and the slaughter process, instead they are relegated to the final stages, observing the processing of the meat.

"I left the slaughterhouse with a sense of disbelief at the magnitude of this brutal treatment. Despite what I had heard from the industry and its supporters, these horses were not old, sick or past recovery. They were adoptable, sellable, sound horses. And if a horse happens to be in bad shape, he or she should never be subjected to the long and arduous process involved in slaughter, but should instead quickly be humanely euthanized by a licensed veterinarian."

For more on the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and how you can help pass it, click here. Help pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act  

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Shuts Down Horse Slaughter in Texas

It was a federal appellate court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, that shut down the two horse slaughterhouses located in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined a petition to hear an appeal.

The Fifth Circuit ruled a 1949 Texas law, Texas Agriculture Code §§ 149.001-.007, is enforceable and can be used to shut down two horse slaughterhouses operating in that state.

In a tribute to these majestic animals, the court noted that "the horse on the Texas trail is a cinematic icon" and "not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse."

At the beginning of this year there were three horse slaughterhouses in the United States. Two of those, operated by Beltex Corporation and Dallas Crown, Inc., were in Texas. Beltex owns a controlling interest in a third slaughterhouse, Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo, that operates in Mexico. The Mexican slaughterhouse sells and transfers its horsemeat to Beltex’ Texas operation, which then sells it abroad.

A third U.S. horse slaughter house operated by Cavel International, Inc. was in Illinois.

Since the mid-1970s these companies slaughtered horses and sold their meat for human consumption. The U.S. horse slaughter industry was a $60-million a year business. In its opinion the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted, "[A] substantial majority of the horsemeat is sold and shipped abroad for human consumption. None of the meat is sold domestically for human consumption." Some of the meat is sold to U.S. zoos or used in fertilizer.

In 2002 the Texas Attorney General issued an opinion that the 1949 Texas law "prohibits the processing, sale or transfer of horsemeat for human consumption." The Attorney General concluded the law was applicable to the slaughterhouses in Texas.

The horse slaughterhouse operators then filed a lawsuit in a Texas federal district court, requesting an injunction to stop enforcement of the law. The federal district court agreed and issued an injunction preventing the Texas authorities from enforcing the state law.

The horse slaughterhouses continued to operate while the state of Texas appealed the case. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports in 2006 alone 100,800 American horses were slaughtered in the three slaughter houses in the United States. 

USDA statistics reveal more than 92% of horses slaughtered in the U.S. are in good shape, not old and sick as opponents claim. Nearly 70 percent of Americans are strongly against the slaughter of American horses for human consumption overseas.

On Friday, January 17, 2007, the appeals court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, reversed the lower federal court.

Texas can now enforce its law that bans any person from "sell[ing], offer[ing] for sale, or exhibit[ing] for sale horsemeat as food for human consumption" or "possess[ing] horsemeat with the intent to sell the horsemeat as food for human consumption." Tx. Agric. Code §149.002. It is also an offense to transfer horsemeat to a person one knows or should know intends to do those prohibited activities. Id. at §149.003.

This opinion has effectively stopped horse slaughter for human consumption in Texas. This opinion by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has also helped mobilize efforts to pass a federal prohibition on horse slaughter now pending.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in essence, rejected the argument by the slaughterhouses that the state anti-horse slaughter law had been repealed by another law, the Texas Meat and Poultry Inspection Act, Tx. Health & Safety Code §a433.033. The Court found the latter statute never legalized sale or slaughtering of horses for human consumption. Instead, "it simply regulate[s] the sale and transport of horse products." Also, the Texas anti-horse slaughter law was codified later.

The Court further rejected the horse slaughterhouses’ argument that a federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, 21 U.S.C. § 601, et seq., preempts the Texas anti-horse slaughter law. The Court was adamant, "We can find no indication that Congress intended to prevent states from regulating the types of meat that can be sold for human consumption." The Court found the FMIA had a limited reach and was not inconsistent with the state law.

In fact, other states have banned the sale or transfer of horses for human consumption. See California Penal Code § 598c ("unlawful for any person to possess, to import into or export from the state, or to sell, buy, give away, hold, or accept any horse with the intent of killing, or having another kill, that horse, if that person knows or should have known that any part of that horse will be used for human consumption"); Mississippi Code § 75-33-3 ("The term ‘food unfit for human consumption’ shall be construed to include meat and meat-food products of horses and mules."); 63 Oklahoma Stat. §1-1136 ("It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, offer or exhibit for sale . . . any quantity of horsemeat for human consumption.")

(Since this opinion was issued, Illinois has banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption.)

The Fifth Circuit also found there was no violation of the dormant commerce clause. The Court believes this anti-horse slaughter statute is the best way to advance Texas’ interests in preserving horses, preventing people from eating horse meat, and stopping horse theft.

A complete copy of the Court’s opinion can be found in Animal Law Coalition’s Dowloads.

By Laura Allen for the Animal Law Coalition