LINCOLN, Neb. — The closing of the country's last meat processing plant that slaughtered horses for human consumption was hailed as a victory for equine welfare. But five years later just as many American horses are destined for dinner plates to satisfy the appetites for their meat in Europe and Asia.
Now they are slaughtered in Mexico and Canada.
That shift is one of the many unintended consequences of a de facto federal ban on horse slaughter, according to a recent federal government study. As the domestic market for unwanted horses shrinks, more are being neglected and abandoned, and roughly the same number — nearly 140,000 a year — are being killed after a sometimes grueling journeys across the border.
"When they closed the plants, that put more of a hardship on our horses than the people who wanted to stop the slaughter can imagine," said John Schoneberg, a Nebraska horse breeder who recently took in three horses from a nearby farmer who said that he was unable to pay for feed and would otherwise turn them loose.
The study's findings have been fiercely contested by animal welfare groups, which argue that most of the problems stem from the economic downturn and the high price of feed. The study also breathed new life into the long-smoldering battle over whether to allow the resumption of domestic horse slaughter or, alternatively, to prohibit the animals from being shipped abroad for their meat.
Lawmakers have pushed Congress to take action in both directions. The Government Accountability Office, which conducted the study, concluded that either option would be better than the status quo, but advocates on both sides, while hopeful, said a resolution did not appear imminent.
"It's just a hot political issue," said Dr. Whitney Miller, a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, which supports allowing horse slaughter. "It's hard to see something definitive happening."
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said horse owners should commit to providing lifetime care for the animals. He said surveys had found widespread opposition to killing horses for their meat.
The United States, much of it settled on horseback, has never really taken to eating horse except in times of need. But elsewhere, the meat — lean and protein-rich — is prized as a delicacy. Selling to a slaughterhouse has long been a way to make some money, to get rid of an old or unwanted horse no longer able to perform.
In 2006, when the last slaughterhouses for horses closed, only 105,000 horses were slaughtered domestically and 33,000 from the United States were slaughtered abroad. Last year, 138,000 or more were slaughtered abroad, according to government figures. (The population of horses in the United States is about 9 million.)