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Horse butchering for food gets Johnson's, Pritchard's nod

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Cheri White Owl, founder of Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, is pictured Tuesday with one of the 33 horses she cares for in Guthrie, Okla. Slaughterhouses could be ready to kill horses within a month if the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides funding for meat inspectors.

DeKALB – Local state lawmakers praised Congress’ decision to lift a 5-year ban on funding horse meat inspections, opening the door for horse slaughter in the U.S. once again.

DeKalb was home to the last horse slaughterhouse in the country – Cavel International – before it closed in 2007. Illinois became the second state to ban the practice when it did so in 2007. State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, opposed the ban and said producing horse meat for countries around the world was a strong economic institution for the area.

“The battle is there are some people that don’t like the idea of killing a horse, but we live in a world with a lot of different cultures,” Pritchard said.

“There are cultures in Europe that like to eat horse,” Pritchard said. “Who are we to say their culture is wrong?”

Slaughter opponents pushed a measure through Congress in 2006 cutting off funding for horse meat inspections. Congress lifted the ban in a spending bill President Barack Obama signed into law Nov. 18 to keep the government afloat until mid-December.

While Illinois’ ban remains in place, some pro-slaughter activists are scrambling to get a plant going – possibly in Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota or Wyoming. They estimate a slaughterhouse could open in 30-90 days with state approval and eventually as many as 200,000 horses a year could be slaughtered for human consumption. Most of the meat would be shipped to countries in Europe and Asia, including France and Japan.

State Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, said she understands concerns about horse slaughter, but she added the current practice of shipping horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter is more inhumane than handling the process locally.

“You don’t know what kind of treatment they are getting on the way there or when they get there,” Johnson said.

Lifting the federal ban did not allocate new money to pay for horse meat inspections, which opponents claim could cost taxpayers $3 million to $5 million a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to find the money in its existing budget, which is expected to see more cuts this year as Congress and the White House trim federal spending.

The USDA issued a statement Tuesday saying there are no slaughterhouses in the U.S. that butcher horses for human consumption now, but if one were to open, it would conduct inspections to make sure federal laws were being followed.

The last U.S. slaughterhouse that butchered horses still stands at 108 Harvestore Drive in DeKalb. Since the operation shut down in 2007, the plant has served as a slaughterhouse for goats and sheep.

The building was sold in a sealed-bid auction Oct. 25 conducted by CBRE Auction Services. Representatives from the auctioneers did not immediately return information about the purchaser Wednesday. Paul Borek, executive director for the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp., said he could not comment on the property until today.

The chances of Illinois lifting its ban is a long shot, said Pritchard, who added the Legislature continues to vote down job-creation legislation.

“I don’t see it happening in the near term,” he said. “We can’t even get the majority party to deal with the big job creators ... this won’t get their attention.”

Johnson was slightly more optimistic, saying if other states have some success, Illinois should take a hard look at lifting the ban.

“I think it’s definitely a possibility and something we should consider,” Johnson said.

Animal advocates say just considering horse slaughtering will bring major public backlash. 

“If plants open up in Oklahoma or Nebraska, you’ll see controversy, litigation, legislative action and basically a very inhospitable environment to operate,” predicted Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States. “Local opposition will emerge, and you’ll have tremendous controversy over slaughtering Trigger and Mr. Ed.”

Although there are reports of Americans dining on horse meat as recently as the 1940s, the practice is virtually nonexistent in this country, where the animals are treated as pets and iconic symbols of the West.

The fight over horse slaughtering has pitted lawmakers of the same party against each other.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the poor economy has resulted in “sad cases” of horse abandonment and neglect. He said lifting the ban will give Americans a shot at regaining lost jobs and making sure sick horses aren’t abandoned or mistreated.

But U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is lobbying colleagues to permanently ban horse slaughtering because he believes the process is inhumane.

“I am committed to doing everything in my power to prevent the resumption of horse slaughter and will force Congress to debate this important policy in an open, democratic manner at every opportunity,” he said in a statement.

• Justin Juozapavicius of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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