GAO will monitor USDA progress on horse welfare recommendations
On June 22, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) proposed several recommendations for USDA to consider and implement in the next four years to improve horse welfare in the U.S. as a result of the numerous unintended consequences of the ban on horse slaughter. In short, the recommendations, which were all accepted by USDA, include the following:
1. To reconsider the annual restrictions first instituted on USDA’s use of appropriated funds to inspect horses in transit to, and at, domestic slaughtering facilities, specifically to closer follow Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulations.
2. To allow USDA to again use appropriated funds to inspect horses at domestic slaughtering facilities, as authorized by the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
3. To institute an explicit ban on the domestic slaughter of horses and export of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in foreign countries.
4. To better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to issue as final a proposed rule to amend the Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulation to define “equines for slaughter,” so that USDA’s oversight and the regulation’s protections extend to more of the transportation chain.
5. USDA should direct APHIS to, in light of the transport program’s limited staff and funding, consider and implement options to leverage other agency resources to assist the program to better ensure the completion, return, and evaluation of owner/shipper certificates needed for enforcement purposes, in order to identify potential problems requiring management attention.
6. USDA should direct APHIS to revisit, as appropriate, the formal cooperative agreement between APHIS and Canada to better ensure that the agencies have a mutual understanding on the inspection of U.S. horses intended for slaughter at Canadian slaughtering facilities, including the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates from these facilities.
7. USDA should direct APHIS to seek a formal cooperative agreement with Mexico that describes the agencies’ mutual understanding of the assistance APHIS seeks on the inspection of U.S. horses intended for slaughter at Mexican border crossings and slaughtering facilities and the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates from these facilities.
The complete list of recommendations and considerations announced by the GAO can be found at http://www.gao.gov/Products/GAO-11-228.
Lisa Shames, director for Food Safety and Issues at GAO is based in Washington, DC, and explains the recommendations and how the organization will monitor USDA for compliance.
“USDA has agreed with GAO’s recommendations and has noted specific actions it will take to implement them,” said Shames. “Commercial transportation will be addressed, especially as it pertains to horses being hauled to Canada and Mexico. We will see a more formal agreement to have oversight over horse slaughter moving out of this country. What we are seeing is horses in transit for longer periods of time, and once these animals cross the border, they are no longer under the protection of U.S. law.”
Shames explained that the ban on horse slaughter has proven harmful to horse welfare in the U.S.
“Certainly when Congress imposed the ban, they had the best of intentions; however, there have been some unintended consequences,” added Shames. “We have analyzed these through our work at GAO. For example, the price of horses has gone down, figured through an extensive regression analysis. Lower-priced horses are most impacted by this ban, and they are traveling greater distances to get across the border.”
Another call to action will be increased documentation of these horses traveling outside of the country.
“We have found that many forms being returned from Canada and Mexico were missing key bits of information such as the dates, time and distance traveled before harvest,” said Shames. “We felt if USDA had that information and could analyze it better, they would be able to do better for the horses. We hope now that the USDA has this information, they will leverage other agency resources such as APHIS to assist them with implementation.”
Shames added that GAO will closely monitor USDA progress on implementing these recommendations.
“Typically, GAO follows up on whether or not agencies have or have not taken action, and this inspection takes place for a four-year extended period,” explained Shames. “In a year, we will go back to USDA and ask what they have done and get the usual documentation. At that point, we would make an interpretation on whether things have been implemented or not.”
While the equine industry has taken a direct hit in the last couple of years – both in the aspects of animal welfare and business – Shames believes these recommendations will help.
“Based on these recommendations, horse welfare will definitely improve,” said Shames. “I believe these implementations will be both constructive and positive. Ultimately, we made a matter for Congress to either reconsider prohibition or consider a ban on the export of horses. We normally don’t do these kind of things, but there was enough significance in the impacts of this ban to have Congress consider making some serious changes.”
For those interested in following the implementation of these recommendations, check back to http://www.gao.gov/Products/GAO-11-228 where GAO will provide up-to-date status updates to confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to the recommendations.
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