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GAO issues horse welfare report

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a 68-page report titled “Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter” on June 22 detailing the findings of a study on horse welfare and markets.    
In 2007, Congress requested a GAO report on the horse market after prohibiting use of federal funds for horse inspection in 2006. The ban essentially ceased horse slaughter in the U.S.
In their study, the GAO looked at the effect of the ban on horse markets, as well as the effect on horse welfare, states, local governments, tribes and animal welfare organizations. Additionally, they analyzed the effects on USDA oversight of the horse market.
The findings of the study show a 148 percent increase in horse exports for slaughter to Canada and a 660 percent increase in exports to Mexico. At the same time, the number of horses sent to slaughter did not change significantly, but horse prices declined by eight to 21 percent.
Horse welfare also declined, as was demonstrated by the increase in abuse cases. State data from Colorado shows a 60 percent increase in abuse and neglect cases between 2005 and 2009.
The challenges faced by the USDA in protecting horses were also addressed by the GAO report. Management challenges in regulating and inspecting the transport chain and ensuring compliance with necessary paperwork were found.
Incomplete regulations account for lack of oversight in horses’ journey to slaughter, leaving animals vulnerable in the longest parts of their trip to slaughter facilities. Necessary documentation in the form of owner/shipper certificates is also frequently either returned incomplete or not returned at all. Current regulations impede the ability of the USDA to enforce these regulations or monitor for compliance.
Additionally, horse slaughter is not protected by U.S. humane slaughter standards during their extensive travel.
As a result of these findings, the GAO report provided recommendations to Congress, as well as recommended executive actions.
Congressional recommendations offered by the GAO provided two options: either allow USDA to inspect horses being transported to and at domestic slaughter facilities or issue a ban on domestic horse slaughter and export of horses for slaughter.
The GAO also proposed four executive actions, including an increase in oversight both domestically and in slaughter facilities in Mexico and Canada. To protect horses in transit to slaughter, the GAO encourages a better definition of “equines for slaughter” in the Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulation. To facilitate compliance with existing laws and to deal with limited staffing, use of staff in other organizations, such as APHIS, was suggested, as well.
The last executive actions recommended by the GAO involve the cooperative agreements between APHIS and organizations in Mexico and Canada controlling foreign slaughter facilities, including the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates.
The fate of horse slaughter has been discussed by important figures around the country, including the U.S. House of Representatives in debate on the 2012 Ag Appropriations Bill when Representative Cynthia Lummis offered an amendment regarding horse meat inspection.
“I am offering this amendment because owners should have the option of selling their horse for processing under their personal property rights. It is not the federal government’s role to ban this option,” says Lummis.
Discussion of horse slaughter on the House floor included arguments of increase in abuse and abandonment since cessation of slaughter, classification of horses as livestock animals, and the emotional attachment that Americans have to horses.
Lummis’s amendment would only apply to fee-for-service inspections and would involve no taxpayer dollars. Regardless, Lummis withdrew the amendment.
The United Organizations of the Horse (UOH) issued a press release commenting on the report and the thriving world horse market.
“It was long in coming, but it does confirm all of the things that the horse industry has been saying since 2007,” says Sue Wallis, Wyoming State Representative and UOH President.
Wyoming Horse Council President Bill Gentle reviewed the report and comments that there are some interesting points raised.
“The analysis of transportation information was really interesting,” says Gentle. “There was also quite an analysis on prices.”
“Horses that were $600 or less saw a 21 percent loss from the cessation of horse slaughter. When you start talking about horses over $1,750, the loss attributed to cessation of horse slaughter was zero percent. If you had quality horses, loss of horse slaughter had no effect on the market,” says Gentle, referring to Table One in the report.
Gentle also comments that the weakness of the report is in the failure to report prices as dollar per pound, rather than dollar per head. He illustrates with an example of a 500-pound horse at 50 cents per pound, which would only bring $250.
“Little horses had no value even 20 years ago. The market for slaughter horses in Billings is pretty strong for big horses, and has been consistently across the market. Trying to analyze the slaughter market by price per head distorts things,” says Gentle.
Gentle addresses the link made in the report between the termination of slaughter and abuse in horses.
“I am really not convinced that these people who are abandoning horses are doing it because they can’t sell them. There are ways to find a home for these horses. There are solutions, and I don’t think all the horse welfare cases are necessarily tied to the slaughter issue,” says Gentle.
New European Union (EU) requirements for horsemeat import mentioned in the report gave Gentle cause for worry. This requirement, effective July 31, 2013, will necessitate horses slaughtered in non-EU countries must have lifetime medication records before horsemeat imports will be accepted.  
“When you look at the horse industry as a whole,” says Gentle, “the industry is split right down the middle on horse slaughter. The Wyoming Horse Council has not taken a position on whether we favor domestic slaughter again. We have opposed legislation that would prohibit the export of horses for slaughter.”
Congressional and executive actions in response to the GAO report are anticipated in the hope of seeing a positive change in horse markets and welfare.
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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