Horse Slaughterhouses: 'America's Dirty Little Secret'

The debate over the slaughter of American horses so that their meat can be transported and sold for consumption overseas galloped into a Capitol Hill hearing room today.

Critics call it America's dirty little secret. There are three horse slaughter plants in the country -- two in Texas, and one in Illinois.

"These three foreign-owned plants slaughtered nearly 100,000 American horses in 2005," Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens testified today. "This is a black eye on our state and nation that demands action."

Congress is considering a ban on transporting American horses overseas for consumption. Horse meat is considered a delicacy in Japan and Europe.

"The American culture does not accept consumption of our dogs or cats for food, but there are other cultures in this world that do," veternarian Patricia Hogan, whose patients include Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, told the committee. "Yet we do not allow the commerical slaugther of dogs and cats for export in this country because we as Americans find that practice deplorable."

Polls show 80 percent of Americans are against the slaughtering of horses for food. Even though horses are classified as livestock, Americans have had a long love affair with horses as companions and sports animals. Look at the sympathy generated nationwide for Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro when he broke his leg in the Preakness, an injury that has put the thoroughbred's life in jeopardy.

It was the slaughter of Kentucky Derby champion Fernando in 2002 that brought this issue to the forefront. A French restaurant advertised Fernando's horse meat as "eat an American champion."

Many Americans were outraged, including Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., who is sponsoring the bill to ban the transport of slaughtered horses overseas.

"Can we imagine sending him [Barbaro] to slaughter if he can't recover? And if not Barbaro, why any other horse?" Hogan asked.

Hogan went on to describe for a subcommitte of the House Energy and Commerce Committee what she witnessed at a horse slaughterhouse when she was in her residency.

"Once these horses enter the path to the slaughterhouse, their treatment is not humane in any way," she said.

She talked of the tool used to kill the horses. Called a captive bolt, it shoots a bolt between the horse's eyes directly into the brain. But Hogan said there's "a great deal of room for human and technical error with the captive bolt method."

Hogan said she had been to beef and chicken slaughter plants, too, and added, "the treatment of and reaction by the horse was very much in contrast to that of the other livestock I had observed."

Richard Koehler, the vice president of BelTex, a foreign-owned company that he said has a horse processing plant in Texas, called the claims of mistreatment "ridiculous."

He told the subcommittee his company takes great care to ensure that horses remain calm during the "euthanization," because, he said, "If a horse is under strain, it will lead to inferior horse meat."

He said American horse meat is "the best in the world."

Koehler testified that the horse processing industry is the only source of USDA-inspected horse meat for U.S. zoos. He cautioned members of Congress that the bill to ban transporting of slaughtered horses would lead to more, not less, horse abuse and neglect because if the slaughter option was taken away, some owners would not be willing to pay to put down their horses and would instead let them die of starvation.

Congress will take up the bill when it returns from its summer recess in September.