There was a story in my local paper recently about a Third-World visitor who, after spending time with host families in the U.S., was asked his favorite aspect of the trip. He replied he really liked the colorful selection of toothbrushes his hosts always made available to him in their bathrooms after dinner.
That naivete is something of a groaner to picture in your mind but it delivers an eye-opening perspective. Those of us raised and/or operating in a mindset familiar and sensible to us often don't foresee the opportunities for misperception by outsiders.
The horse industry is at the center of a major battle now with activists bent on banning the harvest of horses in the U.S., and the export of the resulting horsemeat. What's at issue is passage of H.R. 503, "The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act."
Opponents of horse harvest won a perceived victory last year when Congress pulled federal funding for inspections. The scheme was thwarted, however, when USDA instituted a "fee-for-service" system where processors pick up the tab. H.R. 503 would enact a permanent ban.
USDA says 65,976 horses were harvested in the U.S. in 2004, and 91,757 in 2005. These were unwanted animals sold because they were no longer serviceable, infirm, dangerous, or their owners couldn't care for them. Such horses moved through three foreign-owned U.S. plants, with the meat exported to Europe, Japan and Mexico.
But what's to be done to provide for the eventual millions of unwanted horses under such a ban as H.R. 503 would provide? The legislation contains no mechanism for financial support, nor is there an infrastructure of rescue and retirement facilities to care for them.
What about the disposal of these animals upon their natural death? What environmental risks do the disposal of an additional 70,000 horse carcasses/year pose?
Fact is, the harvest of horses is a necessary and humane alternative, provided the animals are treated humanely in transport and harvest, and such laws already exist.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates basic subsistence care for an additional 70,000 horses annually would cost $1,825/horse/year. That's just the first year. Then there are the subsequent years of care, and that for the millions to later join them.
A recent analysis, "The Unintended Consequences of a Ban on the Humane Slaughter (Processing) of Horses in the U.S.," found a ban on horse processing would actually do more harm to horse welfare in this country. Commissioned by the Animal Welfare Council (www.animalwelfarecouncil.org), the study by nine university researchers found a horse-processing ban would devastate the horse market by devaluing horses as much as $304/horse.
Beyond that, the study found keeping a horse past its usefulness isn't a realistic option for most of America's horse owners. Almost half of U.S. horse owners have an annual income between $25,000 and $75,000 -- and the average cost per year for maintenance is $2,340/horse, not including vet care.
"Those supporting a horse processing ban may be well-intentioned," says study author Gary D. Potter, Texas A&M University professor emeritus. But, he adds, "the independent study shows enacting H.R. 503 would actually make things worse for tens of thousands of other horses, the whole of the horse industry, and society in general."
I've never tasted horseflesh, nor have a desire to do so. And I do consider horses to be among God's most noble and beautiful creatures. But emotion shouldn't drive legislation. If it does, what does it portend for animal ag as a whole in the U.S.?
H.R. 503 is scheduled to come to the floor of the U.S. House for a vote on Sept. 7. Contact your elected representatives on your feelings about this issue.
-- Joe Roybal