OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma's 50-year-old ban on horse slaughtering was lifted Friday when the governor signed a new law that will allow facilities to process and export horse meat, despite bitter opposition by animal rights activists.
Supporters argue that a horse slaughtering facility in Oklahoma will provide a humane alternative for aging or starving horses, many of which are abandoned in rural parts of the state by owners who can no longer afford to care for them. Gov. Mary Fallin also noted that horses are already being shipped out of the country, including to facilities in Mexico, where they are processed in potentially inhumane conditions.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 166,000 horses were sent to Canada and Mexico last year alone.
"In Oklahoma, as in other states, abuse is tragically common among horses that are reaching the end of their natural lives," the Republican governor said. "Those of us who care about the wellbeing of horses -- and we all should -- cannot be satisfied with a status quo that encourages abuse and neglect, or that rewards the potentially inhumane slaughter of animals in foreign countries."
She noted that law strictly prohibits the selling of horse meat for human consumption in the U.S.
Similar efforts are under way in other states, but not without controversy. In New Mexico, a processing plant has been fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than a year for approval to convert its former cattle slaughter operation into a horse slaughterhouse. In Nevada, state agriculture officials have discussed ways to muster support for the slaughter of free-roaming horses, stirring protests.
The Oklahoma legislation received bipartisan support and was approved by wide margins in both the state House and Senate. It also was backed by several agriculture organizations including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association and American Farmers.
But animal rights groups fought hard against the plan, including the Humane Society of the United States. Cynthia Armstrong, the organization's Oklahoma state director, said she was disappointed.
"It's a very sad day for Oklahoma and the welfare of the horses that will be exposed to a facility like this," Armstrong said. "It's very regrettable."
In addition to animal welfare concerns, opponents have said slaughtering horses for human consumption could pose a threat to human health and safety. American horses are often treated with drugs and medications that are not approved for use in animals intended for food.
Horse slaughter opponents are pushing legislation in Congress to ban domestic slaughter, as well as the export of horses to other countries for slaughter. Many animal humane groups and public officials are outraged at the idea of resuming domestic slaughter. But others -- including some horse rescuers, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association -- support the plans.
They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006. They say the ban on domestic slaughter has led to tens of thousands of horses being shipped to inhumane slaughterhouses in Mexico.
Although there are no horse slaughtering facilities in Oklahoma, the Humane Society said the USDA has received an application for horse slaughter inspection permits from a meat company in Washington, Okla., about 40 miles south of Oklahoma City.
Fallin said her administration will work with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to ensure that any horse meat processing plant in the state is run appropriately, follows state and local laws, and does not pose a hazard to the community. The law takes effect Nov. 1.
"It's important to note cities, counties and municipalities still have the ability to express their opposition to processing facilities by blocking their construction and operation at the local level," the governor said.