The January 15th, 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Association includes a lead article on the results of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) initiative to ban the slaughter of horses in the USA for food. Statistics speak volumes. A total of 138,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered in 2006. Of this number, 74 percent were processed in U.S. plants under USDA oversight. Of the remainder 18 percent of the unwanted U.S. horses were sent to Canada for processing and only 8 percent to Mexico. Since the closure of the three operational plants in the USA in early 2007, export of U.S. horses to Mexico for “breeding and recreation” has doubled and horses consigned to plants in Mexico ballooned by 312 percent to 45,000 head during calendar 2007. Dr. Timothy Cordes, Senior Staff Veterinarian for Equine Programs, USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service contends that this response could have been anticipated.
The reality is that in the USA each year over 100,000 horses require disposal due to infirmity, old age and inability of owners to afford upkeep. This situation, coupled with rising prices for equine meat in Europe has created a market which promotes processing of unwanted horses which effectively reduces suffering. Opponents of regulated domestic horse slaughter contend that old horses should be “sent to pasture” or euthanized. The American Association of Equine Veterinarians, an affiliate of the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 2,700 U.S. “rest homes” would be required and that euthanasia and disposal cost $400 per animal. The current lack of alternatives to humane processing will continue to result in abandonment and neglect. Although these practices are illegal, detection and policing is difficult especially in rural areas. The American Horse Slaughter Prevention bill is currently before Congress with parallel legislation under consideration by the Parliament of Canada. The U.S. bill makes provision for funding to prevent export of horses for slaughter, a speculative consideration given the current porosity of our borders.
The initiative by the HSUS and its affiliates with respect to horses has significance for the U.S. poultry industry. By demonizing regular practices in the livestock industry by misrepresentation, distortion of scientific fact, publicizing sensational and frequently fabricated and manipulated images, the opponents of food animal production appeal to the sentiments and emotions of the public and legislators. Restrictive and impractical laws especially at the national level have undesirable and unintended consequences. Poorly framed legislation may in fact create more suffering among animals than the alleged problems intended to be solved.
For the past five years the HSUS has waged a campaign to replace electroanaesthesia (electrical stunning) with modified atmosphere stun-to-kill systems (gas stunning) in U.S. broiler processing plants. The justification for the initiative is based on a biased interpretation of scientific research, inappropriate comparisons between U.S. and U.K. stunning practices and an overt appeal to emotion. There is currently no unequivocal scientific evidence that modified atmosphere stunning will be more humane than electroanaesthesia using low voltage pulsed DC current in combination with well-designed and operated coop-transfer, shackling and slaughter installations.
As an Industry we should be aware of the fundamental objectives of HSUS which is to impose a vegan lifestyle on all humanity by dismembering intensive livestock production in all forms. We should recognize that simplistic solutions to complex issues have unintended consequences. Let us not be bullied and coerced into precipitously adopting unproven and technically imperfect technology. About 50,000 decrepit U.S. horses languishing in neglect and 50,000 transported to slaughter in Mexico attest to the myopic and single minded vision of welfare activists.