USDA audit blasts horse show inspections

USDA audit blasts horse show inspections

APHIS told that current system of veterinary inspections is ineffective, recommends turning it over to DVMs
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Nov 29, 2010
National Report -- Veterinarians should take over horse show evaluations from current equine industry inspectors, who have been deemed inadequate at spotting abuse, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Inspector General.

“Concerning the treatment of show horses, we found that (USDA’s) Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service’s (APHIS) program for inspecting horses for soring is not adequate to ensure that these animals are not being abused,” states the report, issued in September by USDA.

Horse industry organizers currently hire their own inspectors, known as Designated Qualified Persons (DQP), for the shows they sponsor. But USDA says it found inspections were not being performed effectively, and violations of the Horse Protection Act often were passed along to family and friends of offenders so that the real offenders could avoid penalties.

Conflicts of interest and a dismal APHIS budget have been the main contributors to the problem, USDA notes.

APHIS currently has a budget of about $500,000 per year—the same amount since the Horse Protection Program was started 40 years ago—to attend to the roughly 500 horse shows a year where inspections should take place. In 2007, the Horse Protection Program’s $497,000 budget was only enough to send APHIS veterinarians to 6 percent, or 30, of the 463 shows that year, the report states.

The DQS system was initiated so that inspections could be conducted at the shows APHIS veterinarians could not attend, but the system itself sparks a conflict of interest.

“Although the DQP system was intended to establish a way for inspections to occur even when APHIS employees could not be present, we found that it was not functioning as intended,” the report states.

“DQPs realize that by ticketing horse exhibitors, or by excluding horses from a show, they are not likely to please their employers—who are interested in putting on a profitable show. “DQPs are likely to be exhibitors themselves, and so while they may be inspecting horses at one show, they could be exhibiting horses at another. If they inspected other exhibitors’ horses rigorously, they might find their own horses subjected to much more strenuous inspections at other shows.”

Independent DQPs were found to issue few violations when not being observed by an APHIS employee. In fact, USDA found that 49 percent of all the violations issued by independent inspectors from 2005 to 2008 were done so in the presence of an APHIS employee.

And the environment for APHIS workers is hostile, making inspections difficult to carry out effectively even when agency workers are on-site at a show. The report noted instances were inspectors were denied access to animals to be inspected and were verbally abused—in one case over a loudspeaker while the crowd at the show cheered. Because of this hostility, APHIS often brings armed security or police with them to the shows, the report adds.

“Many in the horse show industry do not regard the abuse of horses as a serious problem, and resent USDA inspections. The practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades,” the report states.

Considering all these factors, USDA urged APHIS to abolish the use of DQPs in favor of providing independent, agency-accredited veterinarians at each show. APHIS would hire and train the veterinarians, then pass the costs on to show managers. The estimated cost increase is minimal, USDA notes, at about 9 to 17 percent.

“Exhibitors would have greater confidence that other exhibitors were competing fairly; horse show organizers would be more confident that they were in full compliance with the law; and Congress would have greater assurance that the Horse Protection Act is being enforced,” the report says of the benefits of the new inspection system.

In its response to the report, APHIS states that it will seek another $400,000 in funding for 2011 to bring its budget up to $900,000 per year. Another recommendation from the report, publishing lists of Horse Protection Act violators on its website, already has been put into effect by APHIS. But turning the inspections over solely to veterinarians is not a move APHIS is willing to make right now, says USDA spokesperson Dave Sacks.

“We want to revise the regulations to require those DQPs to be licensed with APHIS and independent from the horse show industry instead of saying it’s going to be nothing but veterinarians,” Sacks explains.

Right now, DQPs are hired, trained and penalized solely by the horse show industry organizations, with some APHIS oversight. Under the new system, which APHIS hopes to put in place over the next 18 months, APHIS would hire, train and penalize the DQPs. Inspectors would be required to be independent from the horse show industry, he says.