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Let's not avoid the horse issue (commentary)

Let's not avoid the horse issue (commentary)

ANY mention of horse slaughter, no matter the context, is bound to draw sharp reaction. That reality played out for me several years ago following a column recounting a favorite story of mine.

A young, well-meaning, vegetarian clerk justified her reluctance to recommend the store's marshmallow treats by explaining that they were derived from "horses' hooves."

The column was NOT intended to broach the horse slaughter issue. Rather, it was meant to illustrate how misconceptions of our food system get propagated (we don't harvest horses in the U.S., nor are marshmallows made from hooves, which are keratin, not gelatin).

Nonetheless, the very reference invoked a ream of comments from readers about horses and slaughter.

That type of blowback doesn't mean that we should avoid the subject, though. To the contrary, it needs to be fully and publicly discussed in an objective but respectful manner.

So, what spurred (no pun intended) me to tackle the issue in this column? Notably, the Obama Administration's 2014 budget excluded appropriation for horse slaughter inspection.

The exclusion has put the issue front and center again, given some well-publicized private efforts to re-establish horse harvesting in the U.S. That said, some historical context would be helpful.

The last three facilities operating in the U.S. did so independent of federal funding; inspection occurred through voluntary fee-for-service arrangement. Those facilities subsequently closed when Texas and Illinois state laws prohibited horse meat sales and horse slaughter operations, respectively.

Since that time, Congress has prohibited the use of funds for inspection and eliminated the possibility of fee-for-service programs. Consequently, new facilities have been unable to commence operations in the U.S.

However, several efforts are currently underway to reinitiate harvest. Those endeavors included litigation against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A final ruling directs the agency to make provision for inspectors if the applications meet federal requirements.

All of that brings me back around to the 2014 budget.

Given recent developments, the lack of funding simply charges up the issue further. Unfortunately, in the tussle to eliminate horse harvest in the U.S., the conditions for many horses actually got worse.

The Government Accountability Office explained, "Horse welfare in the U.S. has generally declined since 2007, as evidenced by a reported increase in horse abandonments and an increase in investigations for horse abuse and neglect. ... State officials attributed the decline in horse welfare to many factors but primarily to the cessation of domestic slaughter and the U.S. economic downturn."

The absence of slaughter capacity has exacerbated the unwanted horse issue and subsequent welfare problem. Furthermore, the U.S. hasn't really prevented horse slaughter; the activity merely shifted to Mexico and Canada. The general public isn't really hearing that honest discussion, though.

For example, upon release of the 2014 budget, The Humane Society of the United States responded, "This Administration is wise to reject that path and to embrace the idea, even indirectly, that horses belong in the stable and not on the table."

That response is key. Yes, horses belong in the stable -- but only if they receive proper care. Otherwise, we're just setting up the horse for unnecessary welfare concerns.

There's a glaring need to reduce the unwanted horse problem in this country. That begins with education about the responsibilities and realities of owning a horse, but that's not the end-all. Slaughter opponents (including the Obama Administration) could greatly advance the animals' overall well-being by actively supporting efforts like the Unwanted Horse Coalition.

It's the horse that matters, but when it comes to the slaughter issue, just saying "no" isn't enough; that doesn't prevent neglect, enhance care or prevent horses from being unnecessarily discarded, and surely, those are the real goals in which we can all find some common ground.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:16

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