SIGOURNEY — A new horse slaughter facility has awoken a national debate about the humane treatment of animals and the effects of horse slaughter on the environment and food.
From 2007-11, horse slaughter was prohibited in the U.S. after Congress stopped funding inspections of horses intended for slaughter and human consumption. But Congress didn’t include that prohibition in its fiscal year 2012 appropriated funds.
“Therefore, if an establishment meets and complies with all of the FSIS requirements for equine slaughter and processing, FSIS must grant federal inspection to the establishment,” according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Now, several facilities across the nation have applied for inspections, including one in Sigourney, Responsible Transportation LLC, which is owned by Keaton Walker, Chase Greiner and Travis Bouslog.
But animal rights advocates are now suing the USDA, stating that the agency failed “to conduct the necessary environmental review before authorizing horse slaughterhouses to operate,” according to the Humane Society of the United States.
The parties involved in the lawsuit allege that horse slaughter harms the environment and horse meat is unfit for human consumption due to the drugs horses are administered throughout their lives.
Walker said while in college several years ago, he went to a horse sale and found out that unwanted horses were being loaded into trailers without the owner’s knowledge.
“The original plan was to create a more humane livestock trailer to transport horses,” he said. “However, we were not able to secure any interest in our service. The business model evolved, and we decided to raise the capital to purchase our own facility.”
They did just that six months ago and hope to have it up and running in a month.
Sigourney Mayor Pat Miletich said the facility sat vacant for five years before the three men purchased it.
”Way back when it was originally put up it did beef processing,” she said. “When that went out, then it became turkey, so it’s always been a meat processing location.”
The facility sits 3 miles northeast of Sigourney in an “agricultural setting,” Miletich said, meaning there are no houses within a half-mile or mile of the facility.
The facility will face several regulations, including the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
”The American Veterinary Medical Foundation stated when properly used and maintained, the penetrating captive bolt is a humane method of euthanasia for horses,” Walker said. “Currently, horses travel for days to be slaughtered. By removing the 1,000-mile journey and utilizing USDA oversight, we are a more humane alternative.”
Michael Berg, chair of the Keokuk County board of supervisors, said the owners faced no opposition from the board and received their full support.
He also doesn’t understand why anyone would be against the facility.
”[The horses are] dying on the road on their way to Mexico,” he said. “I don’t understand the problem.”
Walker said the facility’s capacity is approximately 40 horses per day.
”Per year, we would be processing only around 5 percent of the horses currently being transported to Canada and Mexico,” he said.
Miletich is glad the facility is no longer vacant and doesn’t see it being a detriment to the community.
”The men have done their homework,” she said. “They know what unwanted horses have had to go through in order to be transported to Mexico or to Canada and then be slaughtered there. And we don’t know what kinds of facilities they have in Mexico or how humane they do it. By keeping things in the U.S. and certainly in the Midwest, it’ll be easier on the horses.”
Often, it costs too much for a farmer to take their “unwanted horse” to a veterinarian to be put down, she said.
Walker said all byproducts will be sent to a rendering plant, and all horse meat “will be sold domestically to zoos and exported abroad for human consumption.”
The company defines an “unwanted horse” as one that “the owner can no longer afford to feed, is too dangerous to handle or has injuries, lameness or illness.”
The facility must be in compliance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures regulations.
”Our focus is on what we can control, which is creating a safe and humane processing facility,” Walker said.
For more information on horse slaughter regulations and inspection requirements, go to www.fsis.usda.gov.
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.