WASHINGTON – The House voted on Thursday to ban the slaughter of horses for meat, a practice that lawmakers thought they already had ended.
Instead of banning it outright, Congress last year yanked the salaries and expenses of federal inspectors. But the Bush administration simply started charging plants for inspections, and the slaughter has continued.
The House vote was 263-146 to outlaw the killing of horses for human consumption.
Opponents of the practice showed photographs of horses with bloodied and lacerated faces, the result of being crammed into trailers that would carry the animals to slaughterhouses.
"It is one of the most inhumane, brutal, shady practices going on in the U.S. today," said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., a sponsor of the ban.
Sweeney argued that the slaughter of horses is different from the slaughter of cattle and chickens because horses are American icons.
"They're as close to human as any animal you can get," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.
Added Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.: "The way a society treats its animals, particularly horses, speaks to the core values and morals of its citizens."
The administration contended a ban would do more harm than good for horses.
"We have serious concerns that the welfare of these horses would be negatively impacted by a ban on slaughter," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in a letter released Thursday.
Defenders of horse slaughter said it offers a cheap and humane way to end a horse's life when the animal no longer is useful. They say many owners cannot afford to care for an unproductive horse.
"These unwanted horses are often sick, unfit or problem animals," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "Many of them are already living in pain or discomfort, and tens of thousands more could be neglected, starved or abandoned if their owners no longer have processing available as an end-of-life option."
American horse meat is sold mostly for people to eat in Europe and Asia; some goes to U.S. zoos.
If the slaughter ended in the U.S., plants in Canada and Mexico probably would take over some of the business, supporters say. Unlike other countries, U.S. law requires that horses and other livestock be unable to feel pain before they are killed.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, said that for some horses, "these facilities provide a humane alternative to additional suffering or possible dangerous situations."
Horse slaughter is a tiny business in the United States when compared with the beef, poultry and pork processing industries. Horses are slaughtered at three foreign-owned plants — two in Texas and one in Illinois. In all, about 88,000 horses, mules and other equines were slaughtered last year, according to the Agriculture Department.
Opponents of horse slaughter include oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, country singer Willie Nelson and actress Bo Derek, who watched Thursday's debate from the House gallery. Supporters include former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek, who is now a rancher.
Opponents also include the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Humane Society of the United States. Proponents include the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the biggest horse doctors' group.
The bill's future is uncertain. The Senate has not acted on a similar bill, and Congress intends to finish its current session by the end of the month.