Horse slaughter debate heats up in TN

11:05 AM, Dec 28, 2011   |    comments
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By Anne Paine | The Tennessean

The horse slaughterhouse debate has reignited in Tennessee and elsewhere after a change in a federal funding bill to permit them.

For five years equine slaughterhouses have been banned in this country because of specific wording in the federal budget each year that had forbidden the U.S. Department of Agriculture from spending money to inspect the facilities.

Without the USDA's stamp of approval, slaughterhouses that kill and process horse meat for human consumption cannot operate.

But the language that prevented the USDA from using any of its budget to inspect slaughterhouses was removed a few weeks ago from a funding bill that has passed, giving hope to state Rep. Frank S. Niceley.

He says the facilities are a humane way to deal with horses that otherwise might starve or be abused.

A local animal rights activist responded with outrage.

"We're all very distressed," said Laura Turner, a longtime Williamson County animal rights supporter.

"The U.S. taxpayers will be paying the USDA to inspect meat that will be going overseas as a high-end delicacy," she said. "This was buried in a big omnibus-type bill."

Niceley said the change makes sense.

"Any real horse person realizes you've got to have an end-of-life facility," said Niceley, a Republican from Knoxville whose family has owned horses for more than a century.

Last year, he filed a bill to allow such facilities in Tennessee, but it failed. Even if it had passed, federal funding for the USDA inspections would still have been required.

Niceley said he's unlikely to refile his bill because of the recent action taken on the federal level.

"I'm not sure we need it now," he said.

Opponents to Niceley's bill included country music legend Willie Nelson.

"We ride horses in America, we don't eat them," began an opinion piece that Nelson wrote last year in The Tennessean.

His daughter, Amy Nelson of Lyles, and granddaughter Raelyn Nelson of Goodlettsville spoke in a committee meeting at Legislative Plaza against the bill.

Meat is a delicacy

Up until about five years ago, animals from Tennessee were sent to processing facilities in other states, including Illinois and Texas.

Since then, they've been shipped mainly to Mexico and Canada for slaughter, with the meat being sent overseas. In some parts of Europe and Asia, horsemeat is considered a delicacy and prices can be substantial.

Niceley said horse processing is a practical way to deal with the animals that are old, lame, mean or unwanted.

Having a slaughterhouse in Tennessee would mean jobs and that the horses wouldn't be shipped so far before they're killed, Niceley said.

"All we've got to do is make sure it's run humanely," he said, adding that Tennessee's rules could be stricter than any the federal government might have.

That could include having state inspectors, not allowing the horses to be shipped in cattle cars and holding them for two to three weeks to make sure they have not been stolen.

Such a system is unacceptable to an official with the Animal Welfare Institute, which is working to outlaw any hauling of horses out of the country for human consumption.

"Opponents are wrapping themselves in the 'humane' argument, which is extremely disingenuous," said Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the institute.

"If horses are being abandoned, why is that?" he said.

His group is among several working to set up rescue groups and find solutions, but he said the "horse killers" aren't among those helping.

No requests yet

The White House has issued a memorandum from Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, saying there have been no requests yet asking the department to begin the authorization process to permit a slaughterhouse.

"While Congress has technically lifted the ban, USDA does not expect horse slaughter to resume in the near term as a number of federal, state and local requirements and prohibitions remain in place," she said.

Some states, not Tennessee, have passed laws making the facilities illegal.

Niceley said no one had asked him to file the bill to allow slaughterhouses in Tennessee, but some people afterward said they might be interested in starting one here. That could be a long shot at this point.

A horse slaughter operation can take millions of dollars to set up, and investors might be slow to open their wallets with the strong opposition and shifting nature of the politics.

Momentum has been building for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which would outright ban the killing of horses from or in this country for human consumption.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said his group doesn't oppose euthanizing horses when needed, but they shouldn't be shipped and go through the horror of a slaughterhouse.

As it is, the 170,000 to 180,000 horses that are killed a year in this way aren't necessarily the lame and old, he said. They can be bought at auction from unsuspecting sellers who think their horses will be used for riding.

The majority of horses shipped out of the country for slaughter are healthy, Pacelle said.

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