An open letter from Laura Allen, Attorney-at-Law, Animal Law Coalition, to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
Dear Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack:
The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator, Alfred Almanza, has been quoted as saying that the agency is moving quickly to accommodate two pending applications to open horse slaughter plants in the U.S. Though as I understand since then, the applicant in New Mexico has withdrawn the application, and the Missouri applicant is beset with legal problems and was apparently not even the owner of the property proposed for the horse slaughter facility and cannot acquire any ownership interest.
Regardless, a horse slaughter proponent is circulating a “petition” to urge FSIS to move more quickly in approving applications and make inspectors available for horse slaughter for human consumption. The USDA has a number of legal obligations when it comes to slaughtering equines for human consumption; USDA cannot meet any of these obligations and for this and economic, environmental and other health and safety reasons, should not allow horse slaughter.
Substantial Taxpayer Costs with No Economic Benefit
As the U.S. struggles to climb out of the most devastating economic recession since the Great Depression, it is puzzling why FSIS would take funds from an already depleted budget to use for a program to inspect horses to be slaughtered for human consumption. Surely, the threats to food safety and humane treatment of animals are already significant with a reduced budget. Why would any funds be used for a program that results in no economic benefit to the U.S. and instead threatens the health and safety of our local communities and equines?
Prior to the closure of the 3 horse slaughter plants in 2007, FSIS spent approximately $5,000,000 annually for inspectors, basically subsidizing the three foreign-owned (Belgian and French) horse slaughterhouses. Americans don’t eat equines so there were no sales of horsemeat domestically and thus no sales tax revenues from slaughter. Horse slaughter facilities pay virtually no income taxes. One facility operating in Texas prior to 2007 paid $5 in federal income tax one year on $12 million dollars in sales. In the preceding 5 years the federal income tax was .3% or 1/3 of 1% of gross revenues or sales. A forensic analysis of the tax returns revealed that the company avoided U.S. income taxes by selling the horsemeat at a loss to an entity it owned in another country and then that entity distributed the product overseas at substantial profit. With no sales or distribution in the U.S. and no tax revenue, there is simply no benefit to the U.S. economy from horse slaughter.
The property tax revenue to Kaufman, Texas where a horse slaughter facility operated until 2007 was generally less than $2,000 per year, a mere pittance when compared to the city’s costs for pursuing the facility’s continual violations of its wastewater permit and in working to address violations of regulations of Texas Dept. of Health and the Commission on Environmental Quality. The city’s legal fees just to address issues related to the horse slaughter plant exceeded its entire budget for legal fees in one year. The city was even fined by the TCEQ for the plant’s failure to comply with backflow regulations that meant horse blood and waste backed up into sinks, toilets and tubs. When the plant finally closed, the city was left with nearly $100,000 in unpaid fines for wastewater permit violations.
The situation was no different at the horse slaughter plant in Ft. Worth and the other in DeKalb, Illinois. In DeKalb, the horse slaughter facility had waste permits that allowed contamination levels for waste water that were eight times higher than usual. Yet, the facility was out of compliance hundreds of times. It was not a matter of having old facilities. The owner, Cavel International, built a state-of-the-art pre-treatment system that became operational in 2004. The facility remained out of compliance with its permit regularly until it finally closed in 2007. The blood and waste from slaughtered horses oozed from the state of the art tanks. There were also hundreds of FSIS violations.
The same was true of Canadian Natural Valley Farms where a 2008 investigation revealed the state of the art waste pre-treatment facility overflowed as well with blood and waste, and large amounts of waste and blood were dumped into nearby rivers. When the state of the art facility was shut down, the community was left with environmental contamination and a bankrupt company that claimed $42 million in losses.
None of this includes the plummeting property values, loss of new business, increased crime rates and a general stench and pall that hung over the communities. All courtesy of the horse slaughter plant. This is what President Obama’s USDA wants for American communities?
If horse slaughterhouses are allowed to re-open, they would again be subsidized by American taxpayers. Estimates are that the U.S. government would spend at least $3,000,000-5,000,000 annually to subsidize private horse slaughter facilities.
On top of that, the USDA could give foreign owners of U.S. horse slaughter facilities, such as Bouvry, the Canadian company that has explored the possibility of opening a horse slaughter plant near Stanwood, Washington, or the Belgian company, Chevideco, which claims it may contribute to the building of a horse slaughter house in Oregon or Missouri, a subsidized loan of $750,000 through the RUS World Utilities Services.
Mr. Vilsack, it is outrageous that the American taxpayer should support wealthy investors in a business that profits from animal cruelty, benefits only foreign interests and wrecks the U.S. communities where the facilities are located. This money would surely be much better spent on American interests. It would seem more appropriate for USDA to focus on the live horse industry worth $112.1 billion of gross domestic product.
Few Low Wage Jobs
The argument that significant jobs would be created is specious. Horse slaughter plants operating until 2007 never created more than 178 low wage jobs -and many of these were held by illegal aliens. When horse slaughter plants operated in the U.S., this meant workers and their families overran local resources like the hospitals and government services. It meant low income housing and a decline in the overall standard of living.
Slaughter Contributes to Numbers of Horses in Need
Slaughter proponents have widely claimed that slaughter is somehow an alternative for “unwanted” horses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slaughter actually creates a salvage or secondary market that enables overbreeding and poor breeding practices. Slaughter and a poor economy have resulted in horses in need. Slaughter is driven by a demand for horsemeat in some foreign countries; it is not a “service” for unwanted horses and that is why, as one of your department’s own studies confirms, most horses, 92.3%, are healthy when they are sent to slaughter. Kill buyers are interested in buying the healthiest horses for horsemeat that is sold as a delicacy in some foreign countries.
The rise in numbers of horses in need and drop in horse prices is a result of the worst recession in memory. In fact, if slaughter controlled numbers of horses in need, there would be none as slaughter is still available and horses are sent to slaughter in the same numbers as before the 2007 closings of the slaughterhouses that were located in the U.S. It is the availability of slaughter that actually increases the numbers of excess horses and other equines on the market. Banning slaughter would reduce the number of excess horses and other equines.
Also, slaughter accounts for only about 3 cents for every $100 of the equine industry. It makes no sense for anyone to suggest a limited salvage market could influence prices in the entire horse industry.
The Live Horse Industry
Again, it is the live horse industry that USDA should support. Most horses end up at slaughter because they are purchased by kill buyers. Many horses could have easily been purchased by someone else other options include adoption programs, placing them as pasture mates/babysitters to a younger horse, donating them for use in horse therapy, or placing them in a retirement home.
Humane Euthanasia is Available and Affordable
Also, about 900,000 horses are humanely euthanized in the U.S. each year. The infrastructure could easily absorb those sent to slaughter. The average cost of humane euthanasia including the farm call and either burial, rendering or placement in a landfill can be as little as $50 depending on the method used, and at most $400.
Humane Methods of Slaughter Act Unenforceable for Equines
The USDA is responsible for enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, 7 USC Sec. 1902(a)(“HMSA”). USDA/FSIS failed miserably at this when horse slaughter was legal. That is because the slaughter of horses and other equines simply cannot be made humane: Dr. Lester Friedlander, DVM & former Chief USDA Inspector, told Congress in 2008 that the captive bolt used to slaughter horses is simply not effective. Horses and other equines, in particular, are very sensitive about anything coming towards their heads and cannot be restrained as required for effective stunning. Dr. Friedlander stated, “These animals regain consciousness 30 seconds after being struck, they are fully aware they are being vivisected.” The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) in 2004, GAO-04-247; and dozens of veterinarians and other witnesses have confirmed that ineffective stunning is common and animals are conscious during slaughter. It is simply not possible for USDA/FSIS to make equine slaughter humane and it is a myth to pretend otherwise. Also, the GAO in 3 subsequent reports in 2008, GAO-08-686T; and 2010, GAO-10-203 and GAO-10-487T, has continued to find disparities and inconsistencies in FSIS enforcement of HMSA, an abysmal record of tolerating cruelty at slaughter facilities.
Having to provide sufficient FSIS inspectors even to try to enforce HMSA means even more cost to the taxpayer. For a job that cannot be done when it comes to equines.
Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter Act Unenforceable
GAO has also confirmed that USDA/APHIS has not – and cannot – enforce transport regulations for equines sent to slaughter. 9 CFR Sections 88.1-88.6. Changing a few words here and there in the regulations will not make transport of equines to slaughter humane. USDA/APHIS allows the kill buyers and haulers to fill out and provide the documentation – which is routinely missing, incomplete or inaccurate – relied on for enforcement. It is impossible to enforce regulations when the information to determine violations is supplied solely by the kill buyers and haulers, the very people USDA/APHIS is supposed to be regulating.
A 2010 Office of Inspector General report confirmed APHIS lacks the resources and controls to enforce regulations for humane transport of equines to slaughter. Not only is the information relied on for enforcement supplied by the kill buyers and haulers, APHIS continues to approve of new shipments to slaughter by kill buyers or haulers that have outstanding unpaid fines for violations of humane regulations. The current regulations do not give APHIS the authority to refuse approval.
OIG also found there is no adequate system for tracking the information, such as it is, that is supplied by the kill buyers and haulers about the horses. It is very difficult to track what happens to the horses, meaning enforcement is virtually non-existent. Also, APHIS often does not receive any information from kill buyers or haulers. OIG noted in 2011 that for the past year or more, APHIS had not received the required paperwork, owner/shipper certificates, from kill buyers or haulers for any horses sent from Texas to Mexico.
On top of that, APHIS only has two agents to try to enforce these regulations. Your agency is hamstrung by its own regulations and cannot assure humane transport of equines to slaughter. There is every reason to think your agency could not even begin to assure humane transport of horses within the U.S. to newly opened slaughter facilities.
The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) does not regulate equines as food animals. Americans don’t eat horses and other equines. American horses are not raised, fed and medicated within the FDA guidelines established for food animals, making them unfit and unsafe for human consumption. Equines are given all manner of drugs, steroids, de-wormers and ointments throughout their lives. Equines are not tracked and typically may have several owners. There is no way to know when they are sold for slaughter what these animals have ingested over their lives.
The danger of American horsemeat to consumers was confirmed in a study, “Association of Phenylbutazone (Bute) Usage with Horses Bought for Slaughter” that was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology and authored by Dr. Ann Marini, Department of Neurology, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences; Nicolas Dodman, DVM, Tufts University, and Dr. Nicolas Blondeau, The Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology.
A kill buyer has no idea of the veterinary or drug history of a horse or other equine taken to slaughter, and many of the most dangerous drugs have no or a very long withdrawal period. A typical drug given routinely to equines like aspirin, phenylbutazone or Bute, is a carcinogen and can also cause aplastic anemia in humans. It has no withdrawal period. The FDA bans bute in all food producing animals because of this serious danger to human health. The FDA and USDA would prohibit Americans from consuming horses because of this danger. Yet, neither the FDA nor the USDA prohibits the export of American horses for slaughter for human consumption. It is a grave risk to public health to continue to allow the export of American horses for slaughter for human consumption in other countries.
The European Union has recognized this and has initiated steps to try to stop the import into the EU of meat from American horses that may be contaminated. Kill buyers have been found to falsify veterinary and drug reports to avoid the restrictions. There is no enforcement at the borders, meaning the US continues to dump contaminated and deadly horsemeat on Europe and other countries. A petition has been filed with the USDA to stop the slaughter of many U.S. horses for this reason.
Mr. Vilsack, in view of all of this, why would the Obama administration allow, let alone facilitate as a priority, the opening of horse slaughter facilities in the U.S.? I would urge the administration to reconsider this and instead work with horse owners, animal welfare organizations, the 80% of Americans who want horse slaughter banned, to end this grisly practice once and for all. Equines are in danger and equine welfare is threatened as long as slaughter remains available.