By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A town in Missouri is trying to be the first of several in the United States to get a new plant to slaughter horses now that Congress has overruled animal rights groups to allow the killing for the first time in five years.
U.S. slaughter of horses ended in 2007 when Congress, at the urging of animal rights groups, halted funding to inspect processing plants. The unintended result was thousands of horses abandoned or neglected, and even more enduring hundreds of miles of travel to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
After a government report last year detailed the abuses of horses, Congress restored inspection money to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for this year.
"People are giving away horses every day because they can't sell them," said Wayne White, president of the Missouri Equine Council. "All the rescue places are over-populated."
Horse meat is sold for human consumption in China, Russia, Mexico and other foreign countries, according to Unified Equine, a Wyoming company proposing to open a horse-slaughter plant in Rockville, Missouri. Horse meat is also used for zoo animals.
The proposed plant, at a facility previously used for cattle processing in Rockville, has strong support in the community. But animal rights advocates have not given up the fight.
"Americans are revolted by horse slaughter, it's cruelty they just don't want to support," said Lindsay Rajt of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office documented an increase in horse neglect and abuse since slaughtering ended and found that by 2010 nearly 138,000 horses were being sent annually to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
Unified Equine hopes to open its slaughtering plant in Rockville in September, followed by one in Hermiston, Oregon. Another company, Valley Meats, intends to open a plant in Roswell, New Mexico.
The Missouri and New Mexico plants both requested U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, according to the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service. But "a significant amount of time" will be required to update inspection procedures, the service said in a statement on Wednesday.
Even though Congress restored funding, the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which allocates how money is spent, again withdrew money for horse slaughter inspections in the fiscal 2013 budget. The proposal still would have to be approved by the full House and Senate.
Equine chief executive Sue Wallis said she has heard of people in 18 states and several Native American tribal areas exploring horse slaughter plants.
Residents of Rockville, a town of about 150 people 100 miles south of Kansas City, turned out in force at a meeting last month to support the new plant, said Mayor Dave Moore.
"I don't know of anyone (in town) who is not for it," said Dennis Heiman operator of a grain elevator that has been Rockville's largest employer since 60 jobs were lost with the closing of the beef plant two years ago. The horse plant is expected to create 50 jobs.
Owners of rescue ranches see the problem of neglected and abused horses first-hand. The Changing Leads Equine Rescue ranch just outside Kansas City, Missouri, is at its capacity of eight unwanted horses, said Tina Weidmaier, president of the all-volunteer organization.
Joe Black, a draft horse, was 700 pounds underweight by the time it was rescued from a pasture last August, Weidmaier said. Its owners moved to Florida and left it alone to graze for nearly a year, she said. He is back to his healthy weight but has a chewing disorder, she said.
Many people abandon or seek to give away their horses because of the cost, said Ericka Caslin, director of the Unwanted Horse Coalition. A horse costs an average of about $2,600 annually to feed and board, not counting veterinary bills, she said.
There are an estimated 170,000 unwanted horses in the United States, Caslin said, yet her group has no position on slaughtering plants. Neither does its parent group, the American Horse Council in Washington nor do some rescue ranches, such as Changing Leads.
"We'd rather focus on the problem than on everyone else's solution," Weidmaier said.
Animal rights advocate Rajt said the number of unwanted horses going to slaughter is fueled by racehorse or rodeo breeders who dispose of dozens of animals not deemed "the next big winner." Horse slaughter and the shipping of horses to Mexico and Canada should be banned because it is cruel, she said.
But Wallis of Unified Equity said banning horse slaughter or shipment for slaughter would put well over 100,000 more horses per year at risk of abandonment, abuse and a slow death.
"It's hard to imagine the magnitude of that," Wallis of Equine said. "It would be an unmitigated disaster."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)