By Deirdre Shesgreen, News-Leader
WASHINGTON — The massive spending bill unveiled Monday night by top congressional negotiators would effectively reinstate a federal ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption, unraveling the plans of Gallatin-based Rains Natural Meats to open an equine processing plant in Missouri.
The tiny provision takes up about 10 lines of the 1,582-page bill, but it was the focus of an intense lobbying battle.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., fought against the provision but couldn't muster the votes to strip it out.
"At the end of the day, that was not something we were going to win," said Blunt, who sits on the Senate spending committee that helped craft the budget bill. "That issue was pretty emotional."
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., helped lead the efforts to reinstate the ban, with a phalanx of animal-rights groups backing up the effort.
"This is part of a very deliberate strategy on our part," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society and other animal-rights groups hailed the horse slaughter provision as a major victory -- coming just in the nick of time as Rains and other businesses ramped up efforts to open horse slaughter facilities in Missouri, New Mexico, and Iowa.
"As we were talking to members of Congress about this important language, it was clear that support for an end to horse slaughter is growing and defense of this brutal and predatory industry is diminishing," Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group, said in a statement. "Everyone now wants a permanent solution to shutting this industry down."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources are currently weighing a permit application from Rains Natural Meat to open a horse slaughter plant. That process will be put on indefinite hold if Congress passes the bill. Both the House and Senate are expected to approve the bill, possibly before the end of the week, and the White House has said it supports the legislation.
David Rains, vice president of Rains Natural Meats, said the horse slaughter provision was a big disappointment, but not a big surprise. He said it would force him to "reevaluate" his plans, but he declined to say it would nix them entirely. He noted that if even Congress approves the bill, the ban on horse slaughter would expire on Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.
But Blair Dunn, an attorney who represents Rains Natural Meats, said the fight for horse slaughter is over for now.
"This would certainly shut down any of the plants that planned to open," said Dunn, who also represents Valley Meat Co., which has been trying to open the New Mexico plant.
In 2011, Congress paved the way for the resumption of horse slaughter by lifting a ban first enacted in 2006 that barred the USDA from using federal funds to inspect any meat processing plants that slaughter horses. Plants that are not inspected by the USDA cannot ship meat across state lines, so that 2006 provision effectively ended domestic horse slaughter.
The new agreement would reinstate that prohibition on the USDA.
Animal-rights groups argue that slaughtering horses is inhumane and unnecessary. And when Congress let the ban lapse in 2011, the Humane Society and other groups sprang into action.
Pacelle said his group has used "a variety of tactics at the state and federal level" to block any horse slaughter plants from opening, mainly by a filing lawsuit in federal court and winning an emergency injunction barring horse slaughter. An appeals court lifted that injunction last month. While that lawsuit proceeded, he and others pressed Congress to reinstate the ban, hoping they could win passage before any plants opened.
Now that they appear to be on the verge of victory, Pacelle said, he and others will push for a permanent ban on horse slaughter.
Supporters of horse slaughter lamented the spending agreement, saying such facilities offer a good end-of-life option for horses whose owners no longer need or want them. They also contend that the ban led to an increase in abandoned and neglected horses in Missouri and elsewhere.
"When there is no market for older horses . . . you have lots of horses that just wind up starving to death," Blunt said. "That will continue to be the case unless there's a place for horses to go for a humane end of their life."
The horse slaughter provision is one element in a sweeping spending bill that would fund everything from medical research to Head Start.
Blunt said he will vote for the bill. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she is still reviewing it. She has supported a ban on horse slaughter in the past, but said today it was not easy to get at the truth in the debate.
"Are people allowing these horses to suffer rather than putting them down?" McCaskill said. "It's emotional and . . . it's hard to get at what the real problem is here."