Despite congressional efforts to stop the practice of slaughtering horses in the United States for human consumption, the Agriculture Department announced Tuesday it would continue, the Associated Press reported.
American horsemeat is sold mostly for human consumption in Europe and Asia, although some goes to U.S. zoos.
Congress didn't ban horse slaughter outright. Instead, lawmakers last year used a tactic that is common in spending legislation. Horses must pass inspection by department veterinarians before they are slaughtered, so lawmakers voted to yank the salaries and expenses of those inspectors.
Department officials maintain the law requires inspections regardless. They announced Tuesday they will pay for live horse inspections by charging the slaughter plants for inspections.
Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., denounced the decision, saying, "Commerce and greed have ruled the day. To end this practice, Congress, with widespread public support, passed an amendment by a landslide vote in both the House and the Senate," said Sweeney, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. "This action is a direct defiance of congressional intent."
The department "is thumbing its nose at Congress," said Michael Markarian, an official of the Humane Society of the United States. "The lives of America's horses, which have served us faithfully and provided us with companionship, are at stake."
The department acted on requests from slaughter plants, two in Texas and one in Illinois, which said their communities could be facing $41 million in losses.
Compared with the huge beef, pork, and poultry industries, horsemeat is a tiny business: Last year, plants slaughtered about 88,000 horses, mules and other equines, according to the USDA.
Defenders say it's a low-cost, humane way of ending a horse's life. By law, horses and other livestock must be unable to feel pain before they are killed.
"We know there's not enough resources to care for these animals when they are no longer useful," said former Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, a consultant to the slaughter plants. "Without this option, it's more likely that these animals will be subject to inhumane treatment."
Even if horse slaughter ended in the U.S., plants in Canada and Mexico would take over some of the business, he added.
In letters to Sweeney and other lawmakers last month, department lawyer James Michael Kelly pointed out that Congress did not prevent other inspections of carcasses and meat that are part of the horse slaughter process.
Fee-for-service inspections are currently done for more exotic animals, such as bison, deer, elk, or rabbits.
The new fee system will go into effect on March 10, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said Tuesday.