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SAFE Act Threatens Equine Welfare

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The SAFE Act is deceptively named and will not improve the welfare of horses in the United States.

horses animal welfare horse processing debunking disinformation and false claims

Since 2013, an immense overlying threat to the entire horse industry—and ironically, actual equine welfare--has been slowly simmering in the United States Congress. This threat is gaining increasing momentum. If passed, the bill would exacerbate what has proven to be an absolute animal--and environmental--welfare crisis. In addition, it would cause devastating repercussions throughout every aspect of the horse industry. The threat to equine welfare is called the SAFE Act.

Deceptive Name

The Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act is a deceptively named, animal extremist-backed bill that would completely outlaw horse processing in the United States as well as prohibit the shipping of horses from the USA to be humanely processed for consumption across our borders.

On the surface, the bill is based on the widely propagated falsehood that all American horsemeat is unsafe for human consumption because of medications that could be administered to the animal. In truth, the disinformation about food safety is just a poorly conceived red herring to disguise the animal extremist agenda at the heart of the bill

Making Progress In a Bad Way

Introduced in every Congress since 2013, the SAFE Act has historically made little headway, usually dying in committee. However, this time the situation has changed. On February 4, 2019, the SAFE Act was again introduced to Congress as H.R.961, by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL). On March 1, 2019, the bill was then referred to the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture by the Committee on Agriculture. Currently, the bill has 228 co-sponsors, which is more than half of the House

Processing Horses in the United States is Not Illegal

Currently, in the United States, processing of horses is NOT illegal. It simply has stopped because there is no budget for USDA equine inspectors. Because of this, the last domestic horse processing plants closed in 2007, thus forcing tens of thousands of unwanted horses to be shipped longer distances to Canada or Mexico each year.

Pay Attention to the Players Involved

It is extremely telling that the bill is backed by animal extremist groups such as HSUS and ASPCA, who routinely rely on fallacies and misguided emotion to fundraise and further their cause. Sadly, the SAFE Act is just one step toward the animal extremists’ ultimate goal, which is to eliminate our ability to own, use, and enjoy horses and other animals. Those groups billing themselves as “horse advocacy” groups, who are also pushing for the SAFE Act’spassing, simply do not realize that by aligning with animal extremists, they are, as the saying goes, in bed with the devil.

Equine Welfare - Propaganda vs The Truth

FALSE CLAIM: Horses are“brutally slaughtered” and cannot be humanely killed and processed for food for humans or other animals

First and foremost, the verbiage animal extremists use such as brutal, barbaric, slaughter, etc is by design. The goal is to create an image in the mind of the reader or listener that will create strong emotional responses because emotional reactions lead to donations.

The truth is that the penetrating captive bolt gun utilized in modern equine processing plants is humane, according to major professional veterinary medical associations, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners(AAEP). When utilized correctly, the penetrating captive bolt gun or a gunshot provides instantaneous unconsciousness and induces death more rapidly than euthanasia via chemical injection. In addition, it is important to note that numerous other large animal species, such as cattle, pigs, and sheep, and even exotics such as bison and elk, are regularly humanely processed to provide food for both humans and animals. Horse is still on the menu in many restaurants across the globe, from Europe to Asia. It is only in the United States in the last 50 years that cultural objections have sprung up, likely due to changing socioeconomics and a larger portion of the population enjoying a higher standard of living.

What is most ironic are the objections animal extremists and “horse advocacy” groups express against transporting horses over the US border to Canada and Mexico. The facts are those groups created the need for transporting horses long distances across the U.S. border by forcing the closure of domestic plants, via defunding the budget for USDA inspectors. These groups are objecting to a condition they single-handedly created.

FALSE CLAIM: Horses are strictly companion animals and should not be processed for food for humans or other animals

Decades of Hollywood’s anthropomorphic portrayal of horses, in tandem with the population becoming further and further removed from agrarian lifestyles, have led to an extreme disconnect between perception and reality regarding equines. The assertion that horses are only companion animals is incredibly narrow-minded and ethnocentric. Horses have been a food animal around the world for millennia. Today, horsemeat is regularly consumed in China, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Spain, Iceland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, and many Eastern European, South American, Southeast, and Eastern Asian countries. The European Union alone requires 200,000 horses annually to meet demand.

Contrary to the animal extremist narrative, each and every American horse is NOT a pasture pet or beloved long-time companion. Horses were first officially categorized as livestock by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958. This was reaffirmed by the 2018 Farm Bill, and horses are viewed as livestock by many horse owners.

Of course, as long as it’s humane, each individual horse owner has the right to view and treat their animals according to their personal views and make management decisions accordingly—including end-of-life options. For the owner to whom the horse is a pet, a humane euthanasia injection administered by a veterinarian and subsequent cremation might be the choice. However, it is not acceptable for anyone to force other owners to use that option.

No one has been or ever will be, forced to have their horse processed for food, but the option must remain available. It is important to understand that having a horse euthanized by a veterinarian administering drugs and then paying for carcass disposal can be cost-prohibitive. It is also of note that euthanasia drugs create toxic waste that can leach into the ground and groundwater. Therefore, when a large animal is euthanized via the administration of medications, veterinarians must take extra steps and use a different method to safeguard the environment. If a horse owner is no longer able to afford care for a horse, how are they expected to pay for euthanasia and disposal?

Very few people have the ability to put a horse down themselves or have the space and equipment necessary to bury one on their own property. Imagine if every horse needed to be put to sleep via euthanasia drugs and chemicals and the environmental impact that goes along with it. If 100,000 horses were chemically euthanized annually, assuming that horses average 1000 pounds, there would be 100,000,000 pounds of toxic waste introduced to the ecosystem each year.

FALSE CLAIM: We have to protect "our" wild horses because they are rounded up and sent to “slaughter”

Laws prevent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managed wild horses from being sent to be processed, hence the thousands of unadopted, unwanted mustangs housed in long-term holding facilities for the duration of their lives at immense taxpayer expense. Currently, the population of horses on American rangelands is over 4 times the appropriate level as mandated by the WildHorse and Burro Act. This is causing great damage to the ecosystem and severely impacting the horses themselves as well as native wildlife. Tribal lands are also being overrun by thousands of feral horses that destroy wildlife habitats and decimate vegetation, including plants that are central to Native American traditions and religion. Rounding the excess feral horses up and sending them to be processed is the only realistic, feasible management option.

FALSE CLAIM: All horse meat is unsafe for humans because of medications administered to horses

“Horse advocates” have propagated the disinformation that all horse meat is unsafe due to drug residues, hence the SAFE Act. A primary focus of their disinformation campaign is the anti-inflammatory drug, phenylbutazone, commonly known as “bute.” Another treatment used in the argument against horse meat is deworming medication. There are two glaring fallacies at play here. First and foremost, not every horse is given “bute.” It is most commonly used in performance and working horses as part of a short-term treatment plan to alleviate pain and inflammation from strenuous activity. The truth is that the vast majority of American horses, such as feral horses on tribal lands, broodmares, young horses, and untrained and light-use horses, never need to“be buted.”

EVERY drug has a withdrawal period. Phenylbutazone is not inherently toxic to humans, and even IF a trace amount was present in consumed horse meat, there would be no effect. Professor Dame Sally Davies, a past United Kingdom Department of Health Chief MedicalOfficer, was quoted as saying:

“Horsemeat containing phenylbutazone presents a very low risk to human health... Phenylbutazone, known as Bute, is a commonly used medicine in horses. It is also prescribed to some patients who are suffering from a severe form of arthritis... At the levels of Bute that have been found (in horsemeat), a person would have to eat 500 to 600 burgers a day that are 100% horse meat to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose. And it passes through the system quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies... In patients who have been taking phenylbutazone as a medicine, there can be serious side effects but these are rare. It is extremely unlikely that anyone who has eaten horse meat containing Bute will experience one of these side effects.”

The procedures of processing, shipping, and selling horse meat are subject to the same rigorous testing and safety protocols as all other meats. It is ridiculous to claim that such testing is somehow effective and safe for processing cows, chickens, and hogs, but not horses.

FALSE CLAIM: Horse processing is not necessary; the rescue network can absorb the excess, horses can be rehomed or sold

The closing of domestic plants in 2007, coupled with a recession, resulted in a steep increase in cases of neglect, abandonment, and abuse of horses, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This created what might be called a “perfect storm” situation, and a perfect opportunity for the animal extremist community to step up and take care of horses that belonged to owners who could no longer afford to feed them.

It didn’thappen.

The groups against horse processing had wrongly claimed that equine rescues would absorb the excess horses after the closure of domestic plants. Instead, the existing rescue network was revealed to be woefully inadequate, with insufficient funding, a shortage of physical space to board horses, and a glaring lack of real-world experience on the part of would-be“rescuers.”A 2009 survey done by the Unwanted Horse Coalition showed that 39% of rescues were at maximum capacity and 30% were at near capacity. At the time, rescues were turning away 38% of the horses brought to them.

University of California-Davis researchers also found that 83.9% of rescue facilities surveyed received additional requests to accept horses between 2006-2009. An important fact to note is that during this same time period when rescues were shown to be mostly full, an average of 100,000 horses per year were still being shipped abroad to be processed.

Rescues are not regulated. There is no guarantee that even when “rescued,” a horse will receive adequate care. In fact, numerous equine rescue operations have been shut down over the years due to inhumane conditions. In the years since the last domestic horse processing plants closed their doors, an average of 110,000 horses have shipped—each year—to be processed in Mexico and Canada.

If the SAFE Act passes, where would these tens of thousands of unwanted horses go each year? The“rescue” network grandstanded by animal extremists could not even accommodate the approximately 99,000 horses shipped abroad to be processed in 2008, much less in the years to follow. Even now, the Humane Society of the United States ( HSUS ) website states that horse processing is unnecessary because horses could instead be “sold or rehomed.” The very same website paradoxically states that “kill buyers outbid rescuers,” implying that would-be rescuers are unable to buy one. Which is it? It can’t be both. A perfect example is when tribal horses are gathered and sold at auction, every single“horse advocate” out there has the opportunity to show up, bid, and take one or more home.

But they don’t.

FALSE CLAIM: Overbreeding is the problem. If breeders reduce the number of horses they produce, there would be no unwanted horses

It is interesting to note that the years after 2007 saw a drastic decrease in the number of horses registered with major breed associations. However, the total number of horses processed, even years after American horse processing plants were closed, has remained very close to the same as when domestic plants were in operation. While the decrease in the number of horses registered doesn’t account for the number of grade (unregistered horses) produced, it is quite telling that even a dramatic reduction in overall numbers of a sample population has not, even in over a decade, resulted in a significant decrease of horses shipped to be processed.

Horses become unwanted for many reasons. These reasons include individual horses that are unsound, unsafe, unhealthy, or otherwise unfit for use, to large herds of wild, feral horses resulting from an overpopulation crisis on tribal lands. Changes in an owner’s living arrangements or financial circumstances very often lead to the decision to sell a horse. Modern technology has enabled communication and networking that would have once never been thought possible, allowing horse sellers to find horse buyers for every size, shape, and class of animal. Thus, it stands to reason that if a horse ends up in the auction barn, it’s for good reason. Prior to domestic plants closing, approximately half of the total horses processed were quarterhorses, which is a reasonable number since quarter horses make up the vast majority of America’s total equine population. Thoroughbreds comprised about 20%; draft horses 8%, and the remaining 20% were other breeds.

The Big Picture

Like it or not, processing is a necessary component in all aspects of the horse industry. Having the option in place for humane processing takes nothing away from horse owners who choose other end-of-life options for their animals. Taking the option of processing away, however, would create an immediate, multi-faceted crisis of animal welfare, environmental welfare, and financial hardship.

Meanwhile, the animal extremist movement would be advanced significantly. Consider this, PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk infamously stated that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Founders of plant-based meat substitute companies have plainly stated that their goal is to abolish the livestock industry. It is standard practice for animal extremists to target the “low-hanging fruit” in their efforts to further their agenda. Thus, as Newkirk might put it, a horse is a pig is a cow is a boy—if we aren’t allowed to sell horses for food for animals and humans it is safe to say that other meat animals are next on the list.

There are some realities to owning any animal that are unpleasant and hard to consider. We will not contribute to an animal welfare crisis by avoiding hard discussions. We stand firmly on the ground of true animal welfare based on sound, proven animal science, and the individual responsibilities and private property rights of livestock owners.

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