Is the United States closer to allowing horse meat production? On Friday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed the Oklahoma Meat Inspection Act, ending the prohibition on horse meat processing for export in Oklahoma. House Bill 1999, sponsored by state legislators Rep. Skye McNeil and Sen. Eddie Fields, passed 82-14 in the House and 32-14 in the Senate.
While the sale of horse meat for human consumption would still be off the table in Oklahoma, on November 1, 2013, the state will join the 46 others that allow equine slaughter. However, no states have processed horse meat since federal action in 2007, and bills pending in Congress would prohibit horse slaughter.
Advocates for the Oklahoma legislation said it's in the best interest of animals that would otherwise be abused, neglected, starved or sent to Canada and Mexico to meet a painful end in an unregulated plant.
A Government Accountability Office report found that after domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007 when Congress stopped funding horse meat processing inspections, there was a 60% increase in mistreated horses. Additionally, from 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148% to Canada and 660% to Mexico, respectively. In 2010, the nearly 138,000 U.S. horses exported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter was equal to the number of horses that were previously slaughtered domestically.
According to that same report, a 2007 proposed rule that would have more closely regulated the transport of horses to slaughtering facilities in Canada and Mexico was delayed in its final stages, preventing the USDA from being able to protect them. U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that in 2012 more than 166,000 horses were sent to Canada and Mexico for processing.
Should horse processing facilities eventually be allowed to operate in Oklahoma, Fallin, a Republican, said her administration would work with the Department of Agriculture to make sure they are run appropriately and lawfully, and not present a burden or hazard to the community. Cities, counties and municipalities opposing the measure could still block local construction and operation.
McNeil has said that some of the bill's greatest support comes from rural residents who see the problem of horse population management "up close ... when irresponsible owners decide they can no longer take care of their horses."
There are currently no U.S. establishments authorized to slaughter horses, but several companies, including New Mexico's Valley Meat, have requested that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service re-establish inspection and inspector training. Companies would need to complete necessary technical requirements to be compliant with federal guidelines before beginning operation.
Earlier this month, Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which would not only prohibit horse slaughter operations in the United States, but also end exports to other countries. A similar bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pennsylvania, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.
"Horses have been raised for sport, transport, security and companionship, but never for slaughter and consumption," Landrieu said. "There are very few regulations on the drugs given to horses, and we cannot risk introducing dangerously toxic meat into our food supply here at home or abroad. We must stop the slaughter of these beloved animals and protect the public's health. That is why I am proud to join my colleagues to introduce this important legislation."
The debate comes after a recent European scandal in which horse meat, fraudulently labeled as beef, was found in consumer food products across multiple countries.