KAHRIN DEINES Associated Press Writer HELENA
Inspection hurdles facing any new horse slaughterhouses in the United States could make moot the fate of a controversial Montana bill that gives the facilities special protections. Even if Gov. Brian Schweitzer signs the bill into law, a slaughter facility might encounter an inspection regime that could restrict its access to markets raising the stakes for any company considering the investment of millions to build a slaughterhouse. After impassioned debate, Mo n t a n a ' s horse slaughter bill passed through the Legislature. House Bill 418 now awaits action by Democrat Schweitzer, who has not offered a position on the measure. It aims to stall the kind of lawsuits that forced the country's last slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas to close. The Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau has the authority to inspect such a slaughter facility, but meat carrying its approval alone could not be sold outside the state. "If they're going to produce meat products for human consumption, the market is in Europe so it doesn't make sense for them to exist in Montana," said Carol Olmstead, chief of the state inspection bureau. Meat exported to overseas markets, such as Belgium or Japan, where horse meat is considered a delicacy, must be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That agency, though, is currently barred from inspecting horse meat by a spending restriction built into a 2006 federal appropriations bill. The Montana bill's sponsor, Rep. Edward Butcher, R-Winifred, argues a slaughterhouse could negotiate with the USDA for an export certificate, or pay for its own inspections to sidestep the federal spending bar. But he acknowledges the outcomes are uncertain. "We don't know until we get to it, and this is just putting the first step forward," Butcher said. After Congress pulled the agency's funding, the USDA allowed the country's remaining slaughter facilities to pay for their own inspections until a federal court ruling halted the arrangement. That 2007 ruling, by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, found that USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it instituted the fee-for-service inspection system without first conducting an environmental review. Despite the inspection ambiguity, proponents and opponents alike are taking the possibility of a horse slaughterhouse in Montana seriously. The governor's office has been inundated with e-mails and phone messages from across the country about Butcher's bill, as were state lawmakers. As of Wednesday, 652 of those calling opposed the bill and 746 supported it. Calls and e-mails from Montanans were about 2-to- 1 in favor of horse slaughter. The debate rampages beyond Montana, too. In Mi s sour i , the Legislature is considering a resolution calling for federal incentives for U.S. slaughtering plants, and North Dakota lawmakers are looking at spending $50,000 for a horse slaughter study. Two congressional bills, supported by animal rights activists, seek a ban on sending any horses across U.S. borders for meat processing. "Slaughter plants ironically actually increase the horse population problem," said Dave Pauli, the western regional director for the Humane Society. "It gives that sense of a false safety net." In the absence of a slaughter option, Pauli said, more humane industries, such as cremation, mobile euthanasia trailers and geriatric vet services, would emerge. On the other side, supporters insist the hardships of a slumping economy have led to a crisis for horse owners who cannot afford the costs of euthanasia, spurring increases in the number of horses abandoned. "Anecdotally not in hard and fast, black and white numbers we are seeing an increase and we expect to see that continue," said Steve Merritt, spokesman for the Montana Department of Livestock, which does not have a position on Butcher's bill. In 2007, 58,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S, according to the USDA. That compares to 102,000 in 2006. Today, American horses are sent to facilities in Canada and Mexico, which processed about 106,000 horses from the U. S. in 2008. The total number of American horses annually slaughtered, however, has declined by about 34,000 since 2007, after lawsuits over state laws led to U.S. plants' closure. The Montana bill seeks to stem such court cases by requiring challengers to post a bond worth 20 percent of the slaughter facility's construction costs. It also prohibits courts from halting construction once a facility has been approved by the state. But even with these legal protections in place, slaughterhouse operators may remain skittish about returning to the U. S. "Let's put it this way," Butcher said. "None of the companies have bought airplane tickets. All we're trying to do is carve out a climate where they'll consider us."