No horse slaughterhouses have legally operated anywhere in the United States for five years. Recent changes in federal policy, however, have created the opportunity for new ones to open.
In Snohomish County, much speculation has focused on a former horse slaughterhouse south of Stanwood, where the facility's owner has said, repeatedly, he has no plans to restart.
"I don't know where all this stuff comes from," Wayne Lindahl, owner of Florence Packing, said last week after being asked about the claims some are making about his business.
County Councilman Dave Somers wants to prohibit the horse slaughterhouses now, so they don't become reestablished anywhere in the county. Somers owns horses and said moral qualms, as well as environmental concerns, compelled him to act.
"It's better to do something sooner rather than later and before somebody comes in and invests a lot of time and money," Somers said.
Somers' ordinance says people who sell horses at auction seldom realize the animals may be bought to be slaughtered. Top environmental concerns include potential surface water contamination by horse manure and the leftovers from the butchering process.
A hearing is scheduled in council chambers at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 19.
The last three U.S. horse slaughterhouses, two in Texas and one in Illinois, ceased operations in 2007. The closures stemmed from Congress' decision in 2006 to prevent the use of federal money to inspect horses destined for food. That amounted to a de facto ban.
That hasn't prevented U.S. horses from being slaughtered, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. Arguably, just as many are now being sent over the borders to be butchered in Canada and Mexico, at a rate of more than 100,000 per year.
The GAO report found that the end of domestic horse slaughterhouses led to horses being shipped much longer distances, to places beyond the reach of U.S. inspectors.
The regulatory landscape changed last year, when federal lawmakers lifted the ban on funding horse-meat inspections, potentially allowing horse slaughterhouses to return.
New plants have been under discussion elsewhere in the country, including in Hermiston, Ore., where the City Council has taken a strong stance against a proposed facility.
Some animal-welfare activists contend that the Stanwood facility, Florence Packing Co., is primed for opening a horse slaughterhouse.
"The only thing they need to open is meat inspectors," said Allen Warren, the founder of the Horse Harbor Foundation in Kitsap County and one of the people who urged Somers to pursue the ban. "What we're trying to do is get this ban in place before he (the owner) has the chance to file an application" with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Florence Packing owner Lindahl said his slaughterhouse is obsolete and would need $1 million in improvements to reopen.
"There's never going to be horse slaughter" here, he said last week.
Warren and others point out that Florence Packing operated a horse slaughterhouse for about two decades, until the early 1990s. The business continues to send horses to Canada for slaughter and has business ties to Bouvry Exports Calgary Ltd., a Canadian company involved in the production of horse meat.
Plus, with the potential to expand markets for horse meat in Asia, Warren said there's ample incentive to export from places like Washington state.
For many Americans, eating horse is unthinkable, akin to consuming cat or dog meat. While there's little appetite for equine meat here, it's widely consumed in France and elsewhere in Europe, in China, Japan, Kazakhstan and many other countries.
There's been little public discussion, or apparent interest, in horse slaughter among members of the local agricultural community, said Gerald Labish, the Snohomish County Cattlemen's Association president and livestock representative on Snohomish County's Agricultural Advisory Board.
To Labish, however, slaughtering horses for food is preferable to having them starve from neglect.
"I'd support it, because it's more humane than letting the horses suffer," Labish said.
Warren, from the Kitsap County-based rescue organization, said there's no acceptable way to butcher horses.
"You cannot slaughter a horse humanely," he said. "They're head shy and inquisitive."
For some in the equine-rescue community, banning slaughterhouses is the wrong way to combat horse abandonment and neglect.
"I would rather have them focus on the prevention aspect rather than action after the fact, to prevent those horses from becoming unwanted in the first place," said Jenny Edwards, a board member with Woodinville-based Hope for Horses.
The county would do better, in Edwards' opinion, to focus on two other areas: irresponsible backyard breeding and more aggressive enforcement of neglect cases. Licensing horse breeders, she said, would help the county better monitor the welfare of horses and to intervene when problems arise. The county licenses dog kennels, she reasons, so why not horse breeders?
That would be less expensive for the county and the organizations who wind up caring for unwanted animals, she said. Caring for a severely neglected, unhealthy horse often costs nearly $6,000 per year, she said, compared to around $2,500 for a healthy one.
Licensing horse breeders hasn't come up as a legislative issue for the county, said Somers, who questioned whether it would fix the problem.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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