The Government Accountability Office has issued its report, GAO 11-228, on action needed to address unintended consequences of the 2007 closing of domestic slaughter facilities. A principal recommendation: "Congress may wish to consider instituting an explicit ban on the domestic slaughter of horses and export of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in foreign countries."
A bill, S.B. 1176, is already pending in the Senate that would do just that.
The report issued today was requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2010 and purports to examine "(1) the effect on the U.S. horse market, if any, since domestic slaughter for food ceased in 2007; (2) the impact, if any, of market changes on horse welfare and on states, local governments, tribes, and animal welfare organizations; and (3) challenges, if any, to USDA’s oversight of the transport and welfare of U.S. horses exported for slaughter."
Americans trying to stop the slaughter of U.S. horses believe the report was requested as a stall tactic to avoid a vote on a ban of this sleazy, cruel and unnecessary practice. Indeed, the GAO report appears to have been leaked before its formal release today to horse slaughter proponents. Industry lobbyist, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm read parts of it to members of Congress in trying to convince his former colleagues to approve funding for inspections of horses, something that could mean commercial horse slaughter for human consumption would be legal once again in the U.S.
Fortunately, they didn’t listen to him.
The GAO not only recommends as an alternative a ban on the export of horses for slaughter, the agency also reiterates criticisms made in a September, 2010 report by the Office of Inspector General of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) enforcement of the Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulations. The OIG found that:
APHIS does not deny authorization [to ship] horses to shippers with a record of inhumanely transporting horses intended for slaughter…., even if unpaid fines are pending for previous violations. The OIG also found deficiencies in how APHIS tags horses that have been inspected and approved for shipment to foreign slaughtering facilities.
For example, the agency requires shippers to mark such horses with backtags, which are intended to allow APHIS to trace horses back to their owner and also to verify that horses have passed inspection by an accredited veterinarian. However, APHIS lacked an appropriate control to track individual horses by backtag number on approved shipping documents so that it could perform reconciliations, investigate violations, and initiate enforcement actions, as appropriate.
In addition, the OIG noted that APHIS needs to obtain the resources necessary to adequately oversee the transport program and issue in final a proposed rule that would broaden the scope of the agency’s regulation of horses being shipped to foreign slaughtering facilities.
The GAO notes APHIS has to date continued to fail to issue a final rule that would ban use of double decked trailers to transport horses at every point in the slaughter pipeline. The current law still basically allows transporters to use double decked trailers to transport horses for all except the last leg of the journey to the slaughter house. For more on the suffering caused by use of these trailers…
The GAO was also critical that "APHIS stopped entering information from owner/shipper certificates into an automated database in 2005". GAO observed that "automating the certificate data would make it easier for the agency to analyze them to, for example, identify potential problem areas for management attention and possible enforcement action, such as patterns of violations or other problems associated with particular shippers, border crossings, or slaughtering facilities. It would also allow the agency to easily identify buying trends and common shipping routes. Furthermore, automating data from the certificates on the number of horses in each shipment could potentially provide USDA a more accurate count of the number of U.S. horses exported for slaughter…. APHIS’s lack of a reliable means of collecting, tracking, and analyzing owner/shipper certificates constitutes an internal control weakness and leaves the agency without key information and an important management tool for enforcement of the transport regulation."
GAO found "certificates returned by C[anadian]F[ood] I[nspection] A[gency] from 2005 through 2009… were not properly completed by either the shipper or CFIA officials. …[A]bout 52 percent of certificates were missing key information that should have been filled in by either the shipper (e.g., loading date and time, or certification that the horses were fit for transport) or CFIA (e.g., arrival date and time, or slaughtering facility identification). In addition, … about 29 percent of certificates returned to APHIS were missing some or all of the information to be provided by CFIA officials at the slaughtering facility". …[F]rom 2008 through 2009, the 2 years after the cessation, we estimate that about 60 percent of certificates were missing key information".
APHIS does not receive official cooperation from Mexican or Texas officials. "As a consequence, owner/shipper certificates may not be correctly filled out by the shippers and collected, completed, and returned to APHIS from either the border crossing or the Mexican slaughtering facility with information about shipment dates and times and horse conditions….[A]bout 48 percent of these certificates from 2005 through 2009 were missing key information to be provided by either shippers or … officials. Moreover, about 54 percent of certificates from 2008 through 2009 were missing such information".
GAO notes that APHIS claims the restrictions on federal funds to inspect horses "makes it difficult to ensure that horses are transported humanely to slaughter and to collect information on potential violations that is needed ….to pursue enforcement actions…. APHIS officials speculated that compliance with the transport regulation has suffered because shippers are aware that the program can no longer leverage the assistance of USDA personnel in slaughtering facilities to ensure the completion of shipping paperwork or note the condition of individual horses in a shipment".
Really? When were horses ever transported humanely? Remember the 2005 FOIA to USDA revealed that well before the defunding of inspections and closing of domestic slaughter plants, there was little or no enforcement of transport regulations and horses en route to slaughter suffered terribly.
Indeed, Animals Angels investigations have established the shocking cruelty of the slaughter pipeline and the failure of USDA to enforce the transport regulations. It was Animals Angels and Animal Law Coalition that requested GAO examine the cruelty inherent in the slaughter pipeline and APHIS’ miserable lack of enforcement of transport regulations.
According to the GAO report, there are only 2 APHIS staff members assigned to enforce the equine transport regulations. "The two program officials stated that the program’s limited funding, particularly for travel, has significantly curtailed their ability to provide coverage at border crossings and to work with shippers and inspectors in foreign slaughtering facilities to ensure compliance with the transport regulation." USDA also lacks subpoena authority to help enforce the transport regulations.
So, is the answer more taxpayer dollars to fund USDA’s APHIS inspectors whose enforcement of the transport regulations was abysmal long before the "cessation" of the domestic horse slaughter facilities? GAO knows that won’t work. That’s why banning slaughter altogether was recommended.
Slaughter and the economy
According to the GAO report, "USDA is not aware of any domestic facility slaughtering horses for any purpose, including for zoos, as of the end of 2010. USDA identified at least three establishments-in Colorado, Nebraska, and New Jersey-that import horsemeat for repackaging and distribution to purchasers in the United States who feed the meat to animals at zoos and circuses. With the cessation of domestic slaughter, U.S. exports of horses intended for slaughter increased to Canada and Mexico, the current locations of all North American horse slaughtering facilities. As of the end of 2010, Canada had four such facilities, and Mexico three, that were the principal destinations of U.S. horses exported for slaughter…. Taken together, the 137,984 U.S. horses that were sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico in 2010 is approximately equal to the total number of horses slaughtered in 2006."
State veterinarians and some in the horse industry told GAO that since the closing of the U.S. horse slaughter plants, there have been fewer auctions and sales because of lower prices for some horses and higher energy and other operating costs in transporting horses across the border.
The GAO claims "that the cessation of domestic horse slaughter led to an 8- to 21-percent decline-depending on sale price-in the per head price of horses sold at those auctions. As illustrated in figure 6, we estimate that price reductions were greatest, in percentage terms, for lowest-priced horses, gradually declined as prices increased, and became insignificant for horses in the higher price categories. For example, the average per head price decreased by nearly 21 percent for horses in the lowest price category (20th percentile) and about 8 percent at the median, whereas the price change per head was not statistically significant for higher price categories…-Our estimates show that the economic downturn… was associated with a consistent decline of about 5 percent in price across all price categories".
It might have been helpful had the GAO interviewed economists rather than veterinarians or those with a vested interest in slaughter. Simple economics would indicate if the number of horses going to slaughter has remained the same since the closing of the domestic slaughter plants, then the drop in prices resulted from a decline or change in other demands for horses, like recreational buyers. In other words, it was the economy! It also underscores that the salvage market created by slaughter doesn’t support horse prices or contribute much to the economy.
Horses are not suffering because of lack of slaughter
The GAO does underscore there is no data to support claims of widespread abandonment and abuse or neglect of horses. Indeed, GAO could have mentioned the studies establishing many of these reports are simply untrue, obviously planted in the media to suggest a crisis.
Of course horses are in trouble, but the evidence is that is the result of the economy, not lack of slaughter. After all, GAO states horses are going to slaughter in the same numbers as before closure of the plants. Again, a decline in horse welfare can only be attributed to the terrible economy.
There is also the issue of overbreeding or poor breeding practices that slaughter actually enables.
GAO notes that local politicians, state veterinarians and some in the industry continue to blame "cessation of domestic slaughter" as well as the poor economy for the rise in incidents of abandonment and abuse and neglect. GAO points out, "Other factors that they generally cited include poor weather conditions (e.g., drought in western states); the cost of horse disposal methods (e.g., veterinarian-assisted euthanasia); the increasing costs of feeding and caring for horses; and the lack of auction markets to sell horses….
"Among the factors affecting horse owners, the State Veterinarians said a horse owner’s decision to abandon a horse generally related to (1) cessation of domestic slaughter, (2) poor economic conditions, and (3) low horse prices or lack of sale opportunities. They also said the factors most often related to a horse owner’s neglect of a horse were (1) poor economic conditions, (2) the cost of horse care and maintenance, and (3) lower horse prices…. regarding neglect, some State Veterinarians, noting that people are more inclined to take care of that which has value, said that the drop in horse prices affected some owners’ interest in caring for their animals, especially if their financial situation had declined."
GAO’s report supports that while some believe closing of domestic slaughter plants contributed in some part to cases of abandonment, abuse and neglect, the evidence is that it is really the result of a host of economic factors. Indeed, it makes no sense to blame lack of domestic slaughter plants if the same numbers of horses are going to slaughter as before the closings.
What they also ignore is that numbers of horses going to slaughter is determined largely by a demand for horsemeat in other countries, not numbers of abandoned, abused or neglected horses.
The GAO report does not mention that slaughter creates a salvage market that actually encourages overbreeding. The excess horses driving down prices in a poor economy are from overbreeding. Without slaughter, there would be a reduction in breeding and numbers of excess horses.
Indeed, the GAO notes, "Other officials, including those from animal welfare organizations, questioned the relevance of the cessation of domestic slaughter to the rise in abandoned and neglected horses, which they attributed more to the economic downturn. …[T]here has been no documented rise in abuse and neglect cases in California since the 1998 ban. …[T]here was no documented rise in abuse and neglect cases in Illinois following the 2-year closure of the horse slaughtering facility in that state in 2002."
Read more about the economics of horse slaughter that actually results in more, not fewer, excess horses. Read Equine Welfare Alliance’s report to the GAO, detailing study after study that disputes that numbers of abandoned, abused or neglected horses have anything to do with the availability of domestic slaughter plants. In fact, it is the availability of slaughter that drives the production of too many horses.
GAO Confirms FSIS is not capable of enforcing Humane Methods of Slaughter Act
GAO does not dispute that the Food Safety Inspection Service(FSIS) was grossly ineffective in protecting horses from cruelty during slaughter. In 2004 the GAO found the most frequent violation noted by inspectors in slaughter houses was ineffective stunning, meaning "in many cases ..a conscious animal reach[ed] slaughter" in violation of Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 USCS § 1902(a); 9 C.F. R. §313.15, 9 C.F.R. §313.50(c). See GAO-04-247, GAO-08-686T. GAO also noted there had been no effort made to stop the ineffective stunning and the records kept by inspectors were so poor, it was impossible to tell even by 2008 that there had been any improvement. Also, in 2008, USDA’s Office of Inspector General reported that FSIS management controls over preslaughter activities should be strengthened to minimize the possibility of egregious cruelty.
By 2010 GAO was adamant "[a]ctions are needed to strengthen enforcement" of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. GAO noted despite years of reports and highly publicized incidents of abuse at slaughterhouses, FSIS enforcement remains grossly inconsistent and in many places, non-existent. GAO 10-203
This is the agency that proponents of horse slaughter want us to believe will protect our horses from cruelty?
BLM and Slaughter
One last note of interest in the GAO report: The BLM actually claims the re-opening of commercial slaughter facilities in the U.S. will help protect wild horses and burros.
The report states, "USDA has been less able to help BLM prevent the slaughter of wild horses and burros. Wild horses and burros may be adopted, but title does not pass to the adopter until 1 year after the adoption, upon a determination that the adopter has provided humane conditions, treatment, and care for the animal over that period. Upon transfer of title, the animals lose their status as wild free- roaming horses and burros. As we reported in 2008, from 2002 through the end of domestic slaughter in September 2007, about 2,000 former BLM horses were slaughtered by owners to whom title to the horses had passed.
"When horses were slaughtered domestically, FSIS inspectors in slaughtering facilities watched for horses bearing the BLM freeze mark indicative of the wild horse and burro program. They would then alert BLM officials so that the title status of these animals could be checked to ensure that BLM horses were not slaughtered.
"As a result of FSIS’s assistance during the same time period, at least 90 adopted wild horses that were still owned by the government were retrieved from slaughtering facilities before they could be slaughtered. However, now that the slaughter of U.S. horses occurs in Canada and Mexico, FSIS can no longer provide this assistance.
"Furthermore, shippers are not required to identify BLM horses on owner/shipper certificates, but in reviewing nearly 400 owner/shipper certificates, we found indications that six adopted BLM horses had been shipped across the border for slaughter."
It would be far better to repeal BLM’s sale authority and prohibit title from passing to adopters. It would also help if BLM stopped rounding up and warehousing wild horses and burros and in so doing, facilitating the loss of so many into the slaughter pipeline.