A comment about a recent blog raised an interesting question regarding on-going state attempts to re-introduce horse slaughter to the United States. The writer wondered how the Missouri legislature could try and pass a law authorizing horse processing facilities in the state when there is no federal funding for inspectors at the plants. The answer depends on the often confusing interplay between federal and state law.

There currently is no federal law prohibiting the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. The Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009 would do that, but the legislation is stalled in committee in both the Senate and House of Representatives, has been for a year. With Congress a partisan quagmire these days, the future of these bills is not promising.

Congress has another option, however, that may be just as effective in the short term—cutting the purse strings.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act requires federal inspectors at all facilities that process meat for human consumption. In 2005, Congress amended the Agriculture Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2005-06 to prohibit the expenditure of federal funds for inspectors at the three horse processing plants then in operation. This had no impact on the underlying legality of horse slaughter for human consumption, but the intent of Congress was clear:

No money means no federal inspectors;

no inspectors means no interstate or international sales;

no sales means no profits;

no profits means no reason to stay in business;

no reason to stay in business means no horse slaughter.

Everyone got the message except the United States Department of Agriculture. Before the new spending bill could take effect, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service adopted a new inspection scheme proposed by the owners of the slaughter plants, the very people Congress was trying to indirectly regulate. Under the new plan, the processors would pony up $350,000 annually to pay the salaries of the federal inspectors. The USDA’s official position was that the proposal would satisfy the letter of the law—no taxpayer funds would be used to fund the inspections—while allowing the horse slaughter to proceed as before.

A lawsuit initiated by the Humane Society of the United States and other welfare organizations was filed in February 2006, and a year later the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the USDA’s "fee-for-service" program stopped. Funding for federal inspectors became a non-issue by the end of 2007 with the closing of all three U.S. horse slaughter plants.

Which brings us back to state horse slaughter legislation. With federal anti-slaughter legislation bogged down in committee there is no legal roadblock to state approval of horse slaughter facilities. The economic roadblock imposed by a ban on federal funding for inspections remains an issue for the states, however.

The Missouri legislation authorizing horse slaughter includes a funding mechanism that proponents hope will solve the problem. Under the proposal, the owners of state horse slaughter plants would contribute to a fund administered by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which would pass the money along to USDA to fund federal inspections. Opponents argue that the Missouri plan amounts to nothing more than a cosmetic reworking of the "fee-for-service" scheme already knocked down by a federal court.

The ultimate question will come down to an interpretation of Congressional intent when the ban on funding for federal inspectors was first passed. Was the intent to find an alternative way to halt horse slaughter entirely, or simply to prohibit the use of federal money for inspections?

Either way, a state legislature can forge ahead with authorization of horse slaughter facilities. Whether those plants ever will be built is another question entirely.