Horse processing set to begin as soon as inspectors are in place |

Horse processing set to begin as soon as inspectors are in place

Jan Swan Wood
for Tri-State Livestock News
The horse industry will get a new lease on life when the processing plants open again. The future of young performance prospects like these youngsters will be much brighter when unusable horses can be sent to slaughter, thus making way for quality replacements like these. Photo by Jan Swan Wood

The ongoing battle to be able to process horses in the United States has taken an encouraging turn for the better with the news that USDA/FSIS has finally given Valley Meats, Roswell, N.M., their Grant of Inspection. It’s been over a year of delays for Valley Meats, who completely remodeled a beef processing facility to bring it up to standards to process horses. Each time Valley Meats had met every criteria for processing horses, another delay loomed until six months ago, Rick De Los Santos of Valley Meats filed a lawsuit charging USDA with delaying the Grant of Inspection due to political reasons. The Obama administration is opposed to horse slaughter, though no other course of action is offered to deal with the over abundance of horses in the United States.

The endless barrage of abuse and lawsuits by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Front Range Equine Rescue (FRER) have cost the De Los Santo family and the business not only financially but emotionally, as well. Harassment by the animal rights groups included threats against their lives and the lives of those who work for them.

Valley Meats will now begin the hiring of employees, with between 40 to 100 people being hired as the plant begins processing and then increases volume as the business gets up to speed. The jobs being offered by Valley Meats will be welcome in the drought plagued southeastern New Mexico town and will be a boom for the local economy. Inspectors will have to be in place in the plant before processing can begin, so the date of actual processing is unknown, though there is hope that it will be in July.

Valley Meat’s attorney, Blair Dunn, says, “While a Grant of Inspection has been issued, it is important to note that this does not fully resolve the pending litigation with USDA and, given the unjustifiable failures of USDA to comply with law for a period extending well over 14 months, Valley Meats intends to continue to pursue the case in controversy with regard to holding USDA accountable for its unacceptable politically motivated behavior.”

“…given the unjustifiable failures of USDA to comply with law for a period extending well over 14 months, Valley Meats intends to continue to pursue the case in controversy with regard to holding USDA accountable for its unacceptable politically motivated behavior.”

Blair Dunn, Valley Meats legal counsel

True to form, HSUS and FRER had petitioned the USDA and FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) to deny the Grant of Inspections on several fronts, including: meat and meat food products from horses are adulterated by drugs, treatments and substances that are administered to them; that the sampling program and testing by the FSIS would not be adequate; that allowing a facility to process horses would pose a danger to the environment; and that it is not possible to “slaughter” horses in a humane manner.

After careful consideration, the USDA/FSIS issued a letter in response to the petitions and soundly rebuffed the allegations by HSUS and FRER.

As to the adulteration of horse meat by drugs, treatments and substances that are administered to them, FSIS stated that under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, they are capable of implementing regulations which include requirements for the handling of livestock suspected of having biological residues, and along with the Agency’s National Residue Program (NRP), will allow the agency to ensure that carcasses and horse meat products that bear the mark of inspection are safe for human consumption.

The petition stated that American horses all have drug and chemical residue in them, whereby the FSIS pointed out that residues do no remain in the horse forever and are eliminated from the body over a period of time. If no detectable drug or chemical residue remains in the horse at time of slaughter, the meat is safe for human consumption. Furthermore, FSIS has a zero tolerance policy for substances in horse meat as per rules set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If there is no established tolerance for a substance, the entire carcass is condemned and is prohibited from being used as human food. Intensified residue testing will be conducted at any establishment that processes horses for human food.

The petition claimed also, that there is no effective residue testing available, at which the FSIS said that they have several multi-residue methods for analyzing samples for drug residues, pesticides and environmental contaminants. These methods allow the agency to screen for several types of legal and illegal drugs, such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, and growth hormones. The methods can also detect phenylbutazone (Bute), flunixin, anti-parasitic drugs like avermectins, heavy metal contaminants, over 50 types of pesticides, and performance altering drugs such as beta-agonists, clenbuterol and ractopamine. One sample can be tested for over 130 different compounds.

The inspection program will also tag any horses that appear unhealthy or show any sign of being symptomatic of any substance and inspector-general testing would be performed. Random sampling from every lot of horses not exhibiting any sign of adulteration would also be performed.

Therefore, the rate of sampling would be much higher than any other livestock and adjustments to the system will be ongoing to ensure food safety.

Environmental danger is also debunked in the response by FSIS. Due to laws and regulations in place at all processing facilities, a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) statement is not required.

The last claim in the petition that it is impossible to humanely slaughter horses was also declared incorrect. Due to the stringent animal handling regulations that are in place, even stronger in horse processing facilities, FSIS stated that inhumane handling incidents are rare and do not accurately depict the behavior throughout the industry. FSIS has put more emphasis on animal handling inspection and has provided clear rules and training on humane handling verification and enforcement activities to inspectors. All inspectors in horse processing plants will be required to complete such training and FSIS will take action against any facility that does not comply with the HMSA (Humane Methods of Slaughter Act).

The petitions contention that horses cannot be safely transported to slaughter was met with the fact that APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) has authority over the commercial transportation of horses to slaughter and along with FSIS, will enforce those requirements. FSIS inspectors will monitor the off-loading of horses arriving at processing facilities and any infractions will be investigated by not only APHIS but a veterinarian as well.

In a nutshell, FSIS denied the petition and concluded that its existing regulations will ensure that any horse meat entering the food supply has been humanely slaughtered and is unadulterated by any substances that would be unsafe for human consumption.

So, now that the USDA is apparently prepared to issue inspectors, it is hoped that the processing of horses will resume soon and revive the floundering horse industry and stave off a gruesome ending for a lot of horses that aren’t being cared for. In approving the Grant of Inspection for Valley Meats of New Mexico, plants in Missouri and Iowa would also be on the short list for receiving inspectors so they can commence processing as well.

The Obama administration and even Tom Vilsack, the head of the USDA are opposed to horse processing, and the animals rights groups have vowed to continue fighting, so it will be an ongoing battle even after it resumes. The pending Farm Bill could have language in it that would de-fund inspectors, but it is hoped that it would be defeated as it was in the recent Farm Bill negotiations in June. President Obama has stated that he wouldn’t sign the Farm Bill if it came through with inspections intact, but with no Farm Bill on the immediate horizon, horse processing advocates hope that the law will be followed and that inspections will resume for the first time in seven years.

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