Texas slaughter bill hangs in balance

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May 01, 2003

Austin, Texas-A proposed bill in Texas, in accord with federal law, would legalize the slaughter of horses and sale of horsemeat outside the United States.

Current Texas law makes it illegal to sell, offer to sell or intend to sell horsemeat for human consumption outside the United States as well as within. Critics, however, claim the law is outdated, misconstrued, and contradictory to federal law, which allows for the sale of horsemeat for consumption in Europe and Japan, where the product is a delicacy.

Rep. Betty Brown (R-Terrell), who proposed Texas H.B. 1324, called her state's law "obscure" and "misleading." Steve Hicks, DVM, an equine practitioner in Palestine, Texas, who lobbied Brown to oppose the law, labeled it "ambiguous."

"The question for me," says Hicks, "is did (the wording) say it's against the law to sell horsemeat in Texas or to sell it period?

"It's not sold in Texas," he says. "It's sold overseas. It's not against the law to process horses and to sell meat for human consumption and to transport that by U.S. law. That (federal) law supersedes any state law. You cannot ban transport in Texas for something that is legal to transport everywhere else."

Brown argues she simply wants to clarify the law. Animal rights activists "think I'm trying to make it legal. But it is legal," she told the Austin American Statesman. "There's a lot of misinformation."

Wording matters

Animal rights activists, including Skip Trimble, a spokesman for the Texas Humane Legislation Network, want no changes to the existing state law, in an effort to bar future sales of processed horsemeat.

Trimble says he shudders at the "inhumane slaughter methods" as well as the subpar transport of the animals. He describes how the horses are slaughtered like cattle by shooting a bolt between their eyes into the brain, rendering them unconscious.

While Hicks doesn't deny the methods, the intent is humane, he argues.

"We all want them to be treated humanely and with dignity. We also want to make sure that unwanted horses, unusable and crippled horses have a place where they can be humanely euthanized and disposed of," he says.

He supports horse rescue organizations but said there just aren't enough of them. So there is a need for horses to be humanely put down, be it by a veterinarian or by a horse slaughter plant, he says.

"We can't legislate quality ownership. We have to provide a place for humane disposal," Hicks says.

Case closed

If passed, the Texas bill would make moot a federal lawsuit filed by two horse slaughter plants in Brown's East Texas district. The Belgian-owned plants, Beltex Corp. and Dallas Crown Packing Inc., wanted the state's current law against selling horsemeat ruled unconstitutional, saying that only the federal government can regulate international commerce.

The plants, which slaughter horses and ship the meat overseas, are the only horse slaughterhouses in the country.

Hicks says that should the bill be defeated, the state's slaughter plants would be forced to close, taking with them a byproduct vital to veterinarians.

Horse slaughter plants provide equine pericardia, which are used to augment the human heart pericardium to assist in closure after heart surgery. Universities also collect horse reproductive tracts from the plants for use in veterinary study.

A spokesman from the Texas Veterinary Medical Association says the organization supports the bill.