The nation's first horse slaughter facility in years could be operational by spring now that a de facto ban on the practice has been lifted, Western supporters said Wednesday.
Supporters, who say a U.S. processor is needed to stabilize prices for all horses, have been floating plans for a slaughter facility in Montana or Wyoming even as a battle raged over lifting the 2006 federal ban.
The ban prevented the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federal funds to inspect horse slaughter plants, effectively preventing horse slaughter in the U.S.
But a study by the Government Accountability Office this year concurred with assertions by slaughter proponents who said horses that otherwise might be slaughtered were being abandoned and neglected as a result of the ban. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., pushed for the study, which turned the debate in favor of lifting the ban.
Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December. It did not allocate any new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The USDA issued a statement Tuesday saying there are no slaughterhouses in the U.S. that butcher horses for human consumption now, but if one were to open, it would conduct inspections to make sure federal laws were being followed.
With the ban lifted, slaughter is expected to resume. But supporters of the ban say they'll continue to fight.
"The door is kicked wide open all across the country," said Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse. "Our group, United Horsemen, has been very involved with people across the country looking for the best possible way to get it up and running quickly."
More than likely the first processors won't be in Wyoming or Montana, Wallis said, although she has been in touch with a group that is planning a facility in the Cowboy State.
Former Montana legislator Ed Butcher, of Winifred, who crafted laws favoring a slaughterhouse in the state, said he expects Montana will have a horse slaughter facility, probably within 300 miles of Billings, but not before processing begins elsewhere. Butcher expects several small regional processors to start up.
"There's a group that's coming together that's working on exporting horse meat, and they've kind of been on hold," Butcher said. "We have to have contacts to get into Asian countries. China is very interested in horse meat. Russia, too."
Butcher said he's working with processors as a consultant and someone who has promoted horse slaughter in the Legislature, not a business partner.
Horse prices have spiraled downward since the nation's last slaughterhouse closed in 2007. Slaughter numbers barely flinched at the closure, with American horses being shipped to kill houses in Canada and Mexico. But buyers faced with the cost of shipping the animals out of the country began paying significantly less for the animals, said Bill Parker, who manages horse sales with his wife Jann at Billings Livestock Commission.
On the last Saturday of every month, horse trailers fill the stockyard parking lot and dual-tired pickups spill onto North Frontage Road east of Billings for one of the largest regularly scheduled horse sales in North America.
Parker estimates that roughly 40 percent of the animals sold are slaughter-bound. Demand for horse meat for human consumption in France and Belgium is strong and Canadian processors are more than willing to oblige. While the number of "processor horses" hasn't dipped, the size of the animals is down, Parker said, because owners aren't willing to spend money on feed if sales prices are low.
"I've been going to horse sales in Billings since I was a little boy. Billings has been historically known for heavy-bodied, good-boned kind of horses that weigh 1,200 to 1,350 pounds," Parker said. "Every time the gate popped open, one of those big juicy horses appeared. Now, we sell horses that are supposed to weigh 1,350 pounds. They got 1,350-pound frames, but they weigh 1,100 pounds."
Parker expects horse slaughter facilities will reappear in the United States before the spring grass. If that happens, the rising tide of processor prices will buoy payments for all horses, he said. Horse owners, who have abandoned or neglected their animals rather than paying to haul them to auction, may return to the market.
But consumers in countries where horses are eaten aren't likely to pay more for U.S. horses, said John Holland of the Equine Welfare Alliance. Holland's group opposes horse slaughter and argues that the pro-slaughter lobby has falsely suggested that American horses are suffering for a lack of domestic slaughter plants.
"The real issue that everyone misses is whether the Europeans will even accept our horses. They must be registered as foals, microchipped and they can't be given phenylbutazone, which is a nonsteroid pain reliever that's pretty common."
Anyone selling a horse for human consumption has had to sign a statement indicating the animal hasn't had phenylbutazone for at least 180 days. But Europeans are questioning the veracity of those statements after horses slaughtered in Canada tested positive for the drug, Holland said. The process for making sure the animals are drug-free might have to be retooled, including possibly banning the animals that have ever consumed the drug.
If and when U.S. slaughtering begins again, the animals aren't likely to be old or unwanted, as the pro-slaughter groups often suggest, Holland said. Those horses, many of which have been displaced by a rough economy, aren't what consumers want.
"It's not a matter of bad horses, or unwanted horses. That's a myth," Holland said. "It's cheap horses."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.