Current Status of Federal Laws Affecting Horse Slaughter

I have been working on a post outlining my personal stance on whether horse slaughter should be resumed in the United States. Last week, we discussed the legal history of horse slaughter in Texas. To provide a more complete backdrop for my upcoming post, I am providing for you this week a summary of federal laws addressing horse slaughter.  For as the old cliché goes, you can't know where you are going until you know where you have been. 

Starting in Fiscal Year 2006, Congress included language in annual appropriations bills that prohibited the use of federal funds for inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for horses in transit to slaughter and at slaughter facilities. At that time, the three remaining U.S. slaughterhouses included Dallas Crown, Inc. in Kaufman, Texas, Beltex Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas, and Cavel International, Inc. in DeKalb, Illinois. These facilities stayed open by paying for these inspections under a voluntary fee-for-service program implemented by USDA in February 2006.

Photo:  A plate of horse sashimi, as served at restaurants in Japan.

In 2007, Dallas Crown and Beltex shut down their operations in Texas due to a decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals delivered in January of that year. See this post for details.

Utilizing the USDA fee-for-service program, Cavel continued its operations in Illinois for a few more months in 2007 until the following things happened: 1) in March 2007, a federal district court determined that it is illegal for slaughterhouses to pay the USDA for horsemeat inspections; 2) in September 2007, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Illinois law prohibiting slaughter of horses for human consumption. This essentially shut down the industry in the US, because meat cannot be sold for human consumption without being inspected.

From Fiscal Year 2008 to Fiscal Year 2011, Congress included a prohibition on the use of federal funds for implementation of the fee-for-service program in each annual Agricultural Appropriations Bill. 

In 2011, the Government Accountability Office issued this report detailing some of the negative consequences caused by the closure of the slaughter plants. Shortly thereafter, Congress removed its prohibition on the use of federal funds to inspect horses at slaughter for Fiscal Year 2012. 

Since last year, new horse slaughterhouses have been proposed in New Mexico, Missouri and Oregon, and laws that would permit them to be built more easily have been proposed in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

In June 2012, an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 Agricultural Appropriations Bill passed the Appropriations Committee. This amendment seeks to expressly eliminate federal funding for USDA inspections of horse slaughter facilities for Fiscal Year 2013. The bill as amended must now be approved by the full House and then go to the Senate.

Although the domestic slaughter of horses for human food has stopped for the time being, USDA’s Slaughter Horse Transport Program continues to operate. Established in 2001, the program is intended to ensure that horses travelling to slaughter are fit to travel and handled humanely en route. Among other things, the program collects and reviews shipping documents and inspects rigs used to transport these horses. Prior to 2012, because of the prohibition on using federal funds for inspecting horses transported to slaughter, the transport program was not able to inspect the condition of horses designated for slaughter during their transport. I have not yet been able to locate any data suggesting that this has changed due to the absence of the funding prohibition in the 2012 Appropriations Bill.  

Legal Background of Horse Slaughter in Texas

Did you know that horse slaughter for human consumption has technically been illegal in the State of Texas from 1949 to the present? The laws surrounding horse slaughter in the United States are complicated, and they vary from state to state. Below is an overview of the legal history of horse slaughter in Texas, from 1949 to present.

Photo:  Silhouette of a horse before a North Texas sunset

1949: 51st Texas Legislature passes a law that makes it a criminal offense for a person to 1) sell horsemeat as food for human consumption; 2) possess horsemeat intending to sell it as food for human consumption; and 3) transfer horsemeat to a person who intends to sell it as food for human consumption or who knows or reasonably should know that the person receiving the horsemeat intends to sell it as food for human consumption. See Article 719e of Vernon’s Texas Penal Code (now repealed). The 51st Legislature placed jurisdiction to investigate within the Board of Health’s powers as a matter related to the public health. However, Article 719e did not expressly authorize any particular entity to enforce the law.

1950: A news article quotes the “state health officer,” Dr. George W. Cox, as stating that the Department of Health was prosecuting “every violator we could find.” Health Officer Tells How to Stop Horse Meat Sales, Dallas Morning News, Mar. 17, 1950.

1952: Another news article quotes the same Dr. Cox, “state health officer”, as saying that sausage containing horsemeat “can’t be sold in Texas”. Neigh? Nay! Texans Can’t Horse Around with Sausage, Dallas Morning News, May 23, 1952.

1973The substance of Article 719e was transferred to Texas Revised Civil Statutes and again placed with statutes related to public health. It was not substantively changed.

Mid 1970’s: Horse slaughter companies Beltex (Fort Worth, Texas) and Dallas Crown (Kaufman, Texas) began marketing and processing horse-meat intended for human consumption in foreign countries. 

1991The statute prohibiting horse slaughter was codified as Chapter 149 of the Texas Agriculture Code (where it resides today). It was not substantively changed. Nothing in the current statute expressly authorizes any entity or agency to enforce the law.

2002: Texas State Representative Tony Goolsby requested that the Texas Attorney General clarify the enforceability of Chapter 149, which on its face prohibits the processing, sale or transfer of horsemeat for human consumption. AG John Cornyn issued this opinion, stating that Chapter 149 is applicable to the slaughterhouses in Texas and was not preempted by federal law. According to the opinion, Texas Department of Agriculture has no authority to investigate or assist in prosecuting violations of Chapter 149, but local prosecutors may investigate and prosecute alleged violations of Chapter 149.

2007: When the slaughterhouses learned of the 2002 AG opinion, and that Beltex and Dallas Crown were facing imminent prosecution, they brought a case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, seeking a declaration of legal rights and responsibilities and to enjoin any potential prosecution of them under Chapter 149. The slaughterhouses generally asserted that Chapter 149 had been implicitly repealed and/or it was preempted by federal law. The trial court permanently enjoined the state from prosecuting the slaughterhouses under Chapter 149. On appeal, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and injunction in favor of the slaughterhouses, finding that Chapter 149 had not been repealed, was not preempted by federal law, and that it did apply to the slaughterhouses. See Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo, S.A. de C.V. v. Curry, 476 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2007). As a result of this decision, Beltex and Dallas Crown shut down their operations in Texas.

2008: Attorney General Greg Abbott issued this opinion, stating that it is illegal under Chapter 149 for a foreign corporation to transport horsemeat for human consumption in-bond through Texas for immediate export to foreign destinations. Abbott made clear that neither federal law nor the U.S. Constitution invalidated this application of Chapter 149.

July 2012:  As discussed in this prior post, the Texas Senate Committee on Agricultural and Rural Affairs met to hear testimony on the economic impact of the closure of Texas's slaughterhouses.  According to this news story, some believe that a repeal of Chapter 149 could be on the table next legislative session.

Unless Chapter 149 is repealed or revised, horse slaughter remains illegal in Texas—though it can ostensibly be carried out in other U.S. jurisdictions barring the passage of any federal law that directly or indirectly prohibits it. Whether U.S. horse slaughter, in my opinion, remains a viable option from a legal prospective will be the topic of an upcoming post.