House Bans Slaughter of Horses for Food

The House voted Thursday to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Only a few U.S. plants slaughter horses. The meat is sold as a delicacy in Europe and Asia. Opponents say the practice is barbaric, while supporters say it's actually the most humane way to deal with unwanted horses.

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In the House, lawmakers took up another issue altogether. They voted yesterday to end a practice many Americans may have been unaware was evening happening: the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

For years, a few U.S. plants have killed the animals, selling their meat as a delicacy to Europe and Asia. Opponents say the practice is barbaric, while its supporters say it's actually the most humane way to deal with unwanted horses.

NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK: If HR503 had concerned, say, the slaughter of cows or chickens or even sheep, it's unlikely it would have ever made it to the House floor for a vote. But HR503 wasn't about those other animals. It was about…

Unidentified Man #1: Horses.

Unidentified Woman: Horses.

Unidentified Man #2: Horses.

BURBANK: Yes, horses. The animals we here in the U.S. hold a special place in our hearts for.

Representative CAROLYN MALONEY (Democrat, New York): Americans love horses.

BURBANK: New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney.

Rep. MALONEY: They are cherished companions. They are sporting animals. They are not food.

BURBANK: And so Maloney and others argued successfully for the passage of HR503, which bans the purchasing or selling of horses to be slaughtered for human consumption.

The horsemeat business in the U.S., by the way, could hardly be called booming. Three plants, two in Texas, and one in Illinois, were responsible for slaughtering some 90,000 horses last year. That may sound like a lot, but it actually represents about 1 percent of the U.S. horse population.

More than the numbers, though, it's how the horses are treated that's the problem, said the bill's sponsor, New York Republican John Sweeney.

Representative JOHN SWEENEY (Republican, New York): What we are exposing today is a brutal, shadowy, shameful, predatory practice that borders on the perverse.

BURBANK: Sweeney led a bipartisan group of lawmakers who decried the way the horses are transported to the slaughter, and the way they're killed once they arrive. Things eventually got to the point where those defending the practice of horse slaughter, like Republican Joe Barton, of Texas, were forced to start every statement with a disclaimer.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): It's not because I don't like horses. It's not because I had some bad experience when I was young. My opposition to this bill stems from the simple fact that it comes with negative consequences that I believe are being overlooked.

BURBANK: And Barton wasn't alone. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Quarter Horse Association support the practice of horse slaughter. They say it's a cheap, humane way to deal with unwanted horses - horses that might otherwise be left to suffer as they grow old and sick.

Not to mention, said Republican Ted Poe, of Texas:

Representative TED POE (Republican, Texas): Like it or not, a horse is a private property. They are not humans. They must be treated humanely and cared for appropriately. However, when a horse is no longer wanted or can't be cared for, Congress should not be in the business of deciding how the animals can or cannot be disposed of.

BURBANK: There were plenty of lawmakers who expressed their outrage that this was how the House was spending its time. They wanted to talk about Iraq, or the minimum wage, instead of debating a horse bill that could still end up stalling in the Senate.

Others argued the ban could start a chain reaction, leading to the protection of other farm animals. But that won't be happening, said Democrat John Spratt, of South Carolina.

Representative JOHN SPRATT (Democrat, South Carolina): The horse slaughter act will not lead in that direction, because horses are unique and distinct. We all know that.

BURBANK: Proving, as George Orwell said, that all animals are equal, just some apparently more equal than others.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Washington.

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