FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - More than 100,000 U.S. horses a year are still being turned into chops and steaks for Europeans and Asians since three slaughter plants in Texas and Illinois were closed in 2007.
Only the work is now done by Mexicans and Canadians, a government study has found.
From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 percent to Canada and 660 percent to Mexico, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.
Nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010 - nearly 138,000 - as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased, said the GAO's study on the unintended consequences of stopping domestic horse slaughter, released in June.
Lost are direct exports to Europe totaling 17,000 metric tons of horse meat valued at $65 million in 2006, when the three U.S. plants operated, including Beltex/Frontier Meats in Fort Worth and Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Texas, both owned by Belgian investors. Much of the Fort Worth horse meat was transported overseas by American Airlines.
U.S. zoos and circuses, which earlier could obtain horse meat domestically, now buy imported horse meat to feed their valuable collections of big cats, the GAO said. Pet food manufacturers are permitted to process meat from domestic horse corpses, it said.
Dallas Crown and Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill., have both closed, but Beltex continued to operate after 2007, processing wild boar and ostrich, as well as ritually slaughtering beef cattle for the kosher market. Its manager, Allen Gilbert, did not respond to requests for comment on the GAO report.
After congressional opponents stopped funding the federal inspection of horse meat in 2006, the plants paid for their own inspections until Texas and Illinois stopped the slaughter of horses for human consumption in 2007.
The welfare of many horses has suffered, the study said.
Horses must now travel farther, sometimes in trailers built for smaller animals and without adequate rest, food and water.
Other unintended consequences include an 8 percent to 21 percent drop in the market for lower- to medium-priced horses, while reports of horse neglect and abandonment have risen since 2007. Colorado reported that neglect investigations climbed 60 percent from 2005 to 2009. Texas, California and Florida said more horses have been abandoned on private and state land since 2007, the GAO said.
Among the recommendations, the GAO study said Congress could reconsider restrictions on the use of federal funds to inspect horses for slaughter or permanently ban it.
The USDA has already agreed to a GAO suggestion that it ensure the humane treatment of horses throughout the transportation chain.
Horse meat is considered an appropriate part of human diets in many countries and was consumed in the United States as recently as the mid-1940s, the GAO said.
But the 68-page study noted how the now-contentious equine slaughter issue has divided Americans.
Many animal-rights groups and horse enthusiasts cite the horse's iconic role in helping settle the West, its use as a rural work animal and its continued importance as a show, racing and recreation animal, the GAO said. As a result, some view horses as a companion animal or pet.
Other Americans, it said, view the horse as livestock, citing economic benefits to commercial slaughter - jobs, export revenue and a floor price for the horse market - while serving as an alternative for unwanted horses.
Many of the unintended consequences had been predicted by opponents of the slaughter ban, including Charlie Stenholm, a former West Texas congressman who actively lobbied against the restrictions.
But Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said the undesirable situation is a self-fulfilling prophecy of farm lobbyists who worked to successfully block legislation that would have stopped the transport of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
We never viewed the shutdown of the U.S. plants as the end of the process, Pacelle said in a telephone interview. We've known we must stop the export of live horses to our neighboring nations if we are going to shut down slaughter.
But there might be momentum now to close the borders, he said, referring to a bipartisan bill proposed by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. We think the GAO report gives us powerful new ammunition to pass the federal legislation, he said, noting that both sponsors are Southerners from farm states.
At the same time, there are moves afoot in several states to permit slaughter.
Wyoming and North Dakota are ready to go, Stenholm said. Both are waiting on regulations on interstate shipment of meat to be approved and for Congress to clear up the issue, which we hope the Senate will do with House concurrence. Nebraska and Montana are also interested, he said.
Wyoming has amended an existing law that would allow feral livestock, including horses, to be slaughtered instead of being auctioned or destroyed.
The meat would be sold to state institutions or nonprofit groups at cost or to for-profit companies at the market rate, the GAO report said.