Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN -- In a state where horses have long been revered for their service on cattle drives and in combat, the Texas Legislature is about to consider whether they also should fill another role: food for the dinner table.
For years, two companies in North Texas have produced horse meat for human consumption and shipped it to foreign countries. Only last year did they learn that it was illegal, thanks to an opinion by then-Attorney General John Cornyn.
The opinion, sought by an animal rights activist, said it is a crime to sell or possess horse meat with an intent to use it for human consumption.
The companies -- Dallas Crown Packaging of Kaufman and Beltex Corp. of Fort Worth -- are the only two firms in the country that still process horse meat for foreign tables. Now they are fighting on two fronts to stay in business.
They have gone to court to try to overturn the attorney general's ruling and have asked the Legislature to change the law.
State Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, is sponsoring House Bill 1324, which would allow them to remain open.
"It would make what they do legal because they don't sell food products for human consumption in the United States," said David Broiles, attorney for the horse slaughter companies.
Brown did not respond to several requests for comment, but her staff provided information. A House committee has approved her bill, which is scheduled for debate by the full House on Tuesday.
Shortly after Cornyn issued his opinion in August, the companies also went to court for an injunction to prohibit the Tarrant and Kaufman county district attorneys' offices from enforcing the law. A judge's decision also is expected Tuesday.
Prosecutors agreed to wait until a judge ruled on the injunction before taking any action against the two facilities.
Horse meat is a delicacy in several countries, including Belgium, France, Italy and Japan, where diners consider it healthier than grain-fed, hormone-laced beef.
Jeanne H. Freeland-Graves, head of the division of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said horse meat is a little leaner than beef but nutritionally is about the same. She also said hormone-free beef can be purchased.
"I think it's a matter of preference," Freeland-Graves said. "In Asia they eat crickets, and we don't eat crickets because it's not socially acceptable."
Skip Trimble, who represents the Texas Humane Legislation Network and several national thoroughbred organizations that oppose Brown's bill, said he began the inquiry that led to Cornyn's ruling against the slaughter plants.
"This law (HB 1324) is a response to the opinion," he said. "These plants should be shut down because they are violating state law."
Shane Sklar, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas, disagrees. He said he supports the bill because he is concerned about what would otherwise happen to horses that should be euthanized.
"We want to keep these slaughterhouses open in the state of Texas," Sklar said. "I think it's really important that we keep these two we have functioning."
He said some ranchers cannot afford to euthanize animals that have outlived their usefulness. Without the option of auctioning them to slaughter plants, some ranchers will allow such horses to roam ranches in poor health until they die, which he thinks is inhumane.
"Or they'll go to Mexico, where we don't know how they are treated," he said.
But Trimble said 90 percent of the horses slaughtered at the two plants come from outside Texas, according to information filed in the companies' lawsuits.
Trimble also said the method of horse slaughter used at the two plants is exceptionally cruel and inhumane. A special type of gun fires a stun bolt between their eyes to render them unconscious, he said.
A similar method is used with cattle, but Trimble said the guns are more accurate with cattle because cows are shorter and accustomed to being handled in herds.
Horses are more excitable and have long necks, so their heads are above the chute, he said. The American Veterinary Medical Association specifies that horses are supposed to be properly restrained, but Trimble said that is nearly impossible in slaughterhouse conditions.
He said it can take a few bolts to render a horse unconscious. It's painful for the horse, and sometimes the animals may mistakenly have their throats slit while still alive, he added.
Beltex Corp., owned by a French company, has been in business for 27 years. Dallas Crown Packaging bought a pre-existing company and is owned by a Belgian firm.
Since the slaughter facilities are foreign-owned, the profits go overseas.
"They produce a product that uses our natural resource, and their product is against the law for you to buy or eat," Trimble said.
How many other laws, he asked, allow a foreign company "to come to our country, use our resources and produce a product, and we can't buy it, use it or eat it?"
The slaughterhouses also produce food sold to some zoos in the United States, as well as other products such as hides, hooves and pericardia, the thin, membranous sacs around the heart that are used in human open-heart surgeries.
Broiles said that about 100 pericardia are sold per week to a company in California and shipped to Switzerland, where they are processed and distributed all over the world.
"If they didn't have these two plants, they wouldn't have that tissue," Broiles said.