Commentary: Selling a symbolic vote

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The Snohomish County (Washington) Council voted this week to ban the killing of horses as a human food source. Following what local newspaper The Herald described as “emotional testimony,” council members voted unanimously to enact the ban.

The new law would prohibit slaughtering horses if a person knows, “That any of the horse meat will be used for human consumption,” according to the news story. The ordinance applies to any horse, pony, donkey or mule.

“I think it was important to get this going as a preemptive ordinance,” said Councilman Dave Somers, before he and his colleagues passed the ban in a 4-0 vote. Somers, who owns horses, said there were humane and environmental reasons for enacting the ban. Violations of the law would be a considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.

The ordinance specified that no one can be held legally responsible for selling a horse to another person who later slaughters it. That would allow feedlots to continue exporting horses for slaughter elsewhere.

More than 20 people testified during a Wednesday hearing, most of them in favor of the ban.

“We shouldn’t turn Snohomish County into the horse-slaughter capital of America,” said Russ Mead, general counsel for the Seattle-based Animal Law Coalition.

Talk about over-the-top hyperbole. Regardless of how the council voted, that was never going to happen. No horse slaughterhouses have legally operated anywhere in the United States since 2007, as a result of a congressional measure that prevented federal funds from being used for meat inspection services at packing plants handling horseslaughter. Of course, a recent reversal of federal policy has re-opened the door to resume funding horse slaughter inspections.

Currently, according to best estimates, more than 100,000 U.S. horses are still exported each year for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, with sales of horse meat almost exclusively targeted to foreign markets. For many Americans, eating horse is equivalent to eating a pet. However, it’s widely consumed in parts of Europe and Asia.

Although rumors have circulated about re-opening a former horse plant that operated at Florence Packing Co. in the northern part of the county the 1970s and 1980s, the company owner told reporters he has no plans to reopen the facility, although he does sell horses to a Canadian company that operates slaughter facilities north of the border, according to The Herald.

Making a case against producers

What’s troubling about this vote isn’t its impact on the fate of horses locally. It will have zero effect on what happens to unwanted or otherwise abandoned horses whose owners can’t or don’t want to continue to care for them. The reasons opponents offered in testimony provide a glimpse into the mentality that vegetarian and animal rights activists use to build a case for their anti-industry campaigning.

First is the environmental impact, this time with a different twist.

“A horse slaughtering plant would be an environmental disaster for Snohomish County,” according to Mead, who said such operations could contaminate tens of thousands of gallons of water with horse blood. “The smell is atrocious,” he said.

Okay. Nobody claims that a packing plant is some sort of garden of floral delights. Neither are most factories, refineries, truck stops and even fruit and vegetable processing plants, where all the “right” kinds of food veggies love are packaged. None of them smells all that great.

Nor is the “blood-in-the-water” argument valid. There are a myriad of local, state and federal regulations regarding water quality and no packing plant—equine, bovine, porcine or otherwise—gets away with dumping thousands of gallons of blood into some surface waterway.

Unfortunately, both of Mead’s arguments resonate with people unwilling to examine the facts in regard to the emotional issue of how we handle the disposition of aging or abandoned horses.

Equally troubling was testimony by a local veterinarian, who claimed that humane slaughter is impossible.

Dr. Hannah Mueller, who helps run the Monroe-based Northwest Equine Stewardship Center, testified that her job often requires her to euthanize horses that can no longer live productive lives. She argued that while it’s possible to humanely euthanize a horse, it’s impossible to humanely slaughter one because of their tendency to get spooked.

“They’re highly emotional animals, sensitive beings who have been bred and raised to be humans’ partners over the years, not to be slaughtered inhumanely,” Mueller said.

I’ll grant you that there is some truth to Mueller’s comments. However, they do not transfer equally to livestock. Anyone who’s taken the opportunity to visit a modern packing plant understands that the cattle and pigs there do, in fact, die a humane and almost painless death.

That’s not the case with abandoned horses, as another vet testified against the slaughter ban.

“The question is not whether a horse will be eaten, but by whom?” Dr. Richard Guthrie testified. “Is it better to be eaten by hungry people, or by hungry worms after burial?”

Guthrie told council members that he “owns and loves horses,” but he believes slaughter is preferable to having them abandoned or neglected. He suggested that the money spent to care for these animals could be better used for human welfare.

In what has to be ranked as one of the quotes of the year, Dr. Guthrie said, “A dead animal, horse or cow, loses its personality and is just a lump of meat.”

Not exactly eloquent, but certainly accurate.

During the hearing, Allen Warren, founder of the Horse Harbor Foundation south of Seattle and an advocate for a statewide ban on horse slaughter, claimed that his was not a vegetarian agenda.

“I'm not a vegan,” Warren said. “I enjoy a good steak as much as anybody. I’m against horse slaughter.”

Yes, but the reasons for his opposition matter little to the groups actively working to marginalize livestock production in the United States. They’re just happy to have a meat-eater onboard to lend legitimacy to their efforts to make sure that one day, Mr. Warren won’t be enjoying any steaks whatsoever—no matter where that “lump of meat” comes from.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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