Congress Must Include a Comprehensive Ban on Horse Slaughter in Farm Bill

A predatory industry has been in steep decline, but still chews up horses for foreign diners

With lawmakers in Congress set to complete work on the Farm Bill in the coming months, it’s our moment to pass legislation to ban the slaughter of American horses for the meat trade. This includes halting live exports of horses for slaughter to Canada and Mexico. Achieving this long-sought aspiration requires that a set of independent-minded horse advocates subordinate their quarrels with other groups and their quibbles about legislative language and unite with a shared purpose to protect our American equines.

Decades ago, there were more than two dozen U.S. horse slaughter plants, perhaps chewing up more than a million equines a year, whether wild horses rounded up from public lands in the West, racehorses walked right off the track and into a kill buyer’s truck, or pleasure or working horses picked up at auctions for a pittance. In 1990, kill buyers shuttled 400,000 horses to slaughter, with the carnage divvied up by those plant operators in the United States as well as those in Canada and Mexico.

It was always an export commodity, even decades ago. Horse meat never figured prominently on the American menu, with hippophagy reserved for extremes like the Donner party’s harrowing passage over the Sierras or other circumstances driven by human desperation.

Though there were always Americans who pitied the horses funneled to slaughter, no single organization sustained a sophisticated political effort to end the practice. But a political movement to end the practice did emerge in the 1990s, and combined with the pet food industry and foreign markets demonstrating concerns about drug residues in horse meat, there’s been progress. Today, the horse slaughter enterprise has become a shadow of what it once was.

In 2006, Congress took action to defund USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants and, coincident with that effort, states and federal courts took actions that resulted in closures of the three remaining plants in Illinois and Texas. Since then, Congress has shut the door on horse-slaughter start-ups.

Unfortunately, a small though determined group of lawmakers, lobbied by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have been able to block the ban on live exports of equines to Canada and Mexico. It’s now time to swat away the arguments from trade groups whose positions may have been debatable 30 years ago but no longer apply today.

The number of equines exported for foreign slaughter has dropped from upwards of 400,000 in 1990 to just a comparative trickle, with roughly 20,000 exported in 2022. New York Governor Kathy Hochul is set to sign comprehensive anti-slaughter legislation in New York. With that law, we’ll have four of America’s five biggest states — California, Illinois, Texas, and now New York — forbidding slaughter.

Though horse-slaughter commerce is negligible, what remains of the enterprise still fills the eyes of thousands of horses with terror. The Center for a Humane Economy, Animal Wellness Action and Animals’ Angels documented this terror in a national investigation into the trade released earlier this year. Our report shows once-healthy horses who were denied food, water, and veterinary care; injured during handling or transport; held in overcrowded pens where viruses such as strangles run amok; and left exposed with no shelter against the bitter winds of Canadian winter. 

Must-Pass Farm Bill Provides a Pathway for Final Action on SAFE Act

The Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act, led by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., seeks to end all of this. It would do so by revising the 2018 Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act, passed as an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill, and adding “equines” to the prohibition against companion animal slaughter.

Some horse advocates have voiced concerns, however, that the SAFE Act isn’t strong enough, suggesting there are loopholes for slaughter for animal consumption and for Native American tribes.

Those fears are unwarranted. The pet food industry is not going down to add horse meat to its ingredient list for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that horse meat is laced with toxic residues. And the zoo industry demand is small (just for big cats) and there are big-cat feeds that are already widely used that do not rely on horse meat at all.

Because animals sold for pet food are likely to yield far lower prices than animals destined for human consumption, it’s just not profitable for kill buyers to trade in them, even if that demand did exist. And while it’s true that there are pet food companies in Canada in the vicinity of the Richelieu plant in Quebec, those companies are purchasing byproducts from animals already slaughtered for human consumption. There are no horses slaughtered exclusively for pet food or for zoos. Slaughtering horses for those purposes is not a stand-alone business.

Nevertheless, we support the idea of strengthening the SAFE Act to ensure that the law will put an end to any trafficking of live horses to Canada or Mexico for slaughter for any purpose. The key now is to secure a place for the SAFE Act in the Farm Bill, and then to perfect the Farm Bill at the end of the process.

It has likewise been suggested that an exemption in the dog and cat meat law providing for native tribes engaging in religious ceremonies might be exploited by pro-slaughter tribes to engage in large-scale commercial slaughter for human or pet food. The exemption in question, however, states only that slaughter is allowed “for purposes of a religious ceremony.” It is impossible to imagine a religious ceremony tied to walking thousands of horses into transport trucks bound for slaughter plants in Canada or Mexico. That would be a transparent violation of the law.

No horse deserves this fate — which is why animal advocates must sideline their
differences and unite behind the SAFE Act.

Major Push Needed to Overcome Obstacles to SAFE Act Enactment

“After over 20 years and over a million horses being shipped under horrendous conditions to be butchered in Mexico and Canada, we have an exciting new opportunity to end this by passing the SAFE Act this year,” said Rebekah Keat and Siri Lindley, founders of Believe Ranch and Rescue and Horses in Our Hands.”

“Advocates for Wild Equines speaks for all equines, and it is time to get this legislation over the finish line,” said Britta Hesla, legislative liaison for the group.

“For the past 15 years, Animals’ Angels has been investigating the horse slaughter industry, and thus we are very familiar with all the key exporters, importers, transport routes and the demand of the foreign markets for the meat,” said Sonja Meadows, founder and president of Animals’ Angels. “There is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the SAFE Act without explicitly including verbiage regarding slaughter for animal consumption will open the door for large-scale slaughter of horses for pet and zoo animal consumption. It’s time to focus on the facts, join forces and move this bill forward.”

“Backing the SAFE Act isn’t about politics; it’s about compassion, respect, and justice,” said Susan Kayne, founder and president of Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation in New York. “Our horses — symbols of our nation’s spirit and vitality — deserve nothing less.”

“We are so close to completing our work to end slaughter in North America,” said Barbara Moore, vice president of Equine Collaborative International.

The United States has an annual economic output of $26.6 trillion dollars. Are we really so desperate for commerce that we must abet the trafficking of 20,000 horses to provide loose change for a rag-tag group of kill buyers, kill pen operators, kill transporters, and kill-floor operators?

The number of American horses slaughtered annually has declined by more than 90 percent since 1990 and by 75 percent since 2010. And notably, there’s been no uptick in abandonment or cruelty tracked by animal welfare groups during those periods. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.

No one disputes that there are some homeless horses, just as there are homeless dogs and cats. The real problem is that the horse slaughter crowd treats homelessness as an economic opportunity rather than a moral responsibility. If it’s wrong to slaughter American horses for human consumption in the United States, it’s wrong to slaughter American horses in Canada or Mexico.

Horses have always been part of the American story, and horse slaughter was always a footnote that most people failed to see or investigate. Now it’s time that footnote be erased, with 2023 becoming the year that American political leaders finally take an unsparing and honest look at the withering enterprise and say, “Never again.”

Scott Beckstead is director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. Wayne Pacelle is the president of the organizations.