LAS CRUCES – Former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and horse race veterinarian Lester Friedlander, who has seen thousands of cows butchered over the years, has major reservations about plans to begin slaughtering horses in a Roswell plant.
Friedlander, a Pennsylvania resident, traveled to Roswell on Monday to lend his voice to those opposed to Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos’ efforts to get the USDA inspections necessary to start up the nation’s first horse slaughterhouse in six years.
He held a news conference in front of the plant, outlining his reasons for opposing it.
Among his concerns is whether the horses can be humanely killed in the manner described by De Los Santos. De Los Santos took a Journal reporter on a tour of the plant recently and described the process, which involved shooting a retractable 8-inch-long bolt into the animal’s skull to destroy its brain. The horse would then be hung up, stabbed and drained of blood.
Friedlander also said that because horses are skittish and have longer necks, it is more difficult for slaughterhouse workers to effectively stun the animals with a bolt gun used on cattle.
Before the last horse slaughtering operations ended in the United States in 2007, there were many examples of horses having to be shot up to seven or eight times, he said.
Although Friedlander was not an inspector at any horse slaughter plants, he said he bases his statements on his background as a horse veterinarian and on research and studies on the effectiveness of using bolt guns on horses.
Congress halted funding for mandatory inspections in 2007, effectively closing all horse slaughter operations. The funding was restored for the current fiscal year, opening the door for De Los Santos’ plans.
Friedlander also said he doubts the claim by De Los Santos that a USDA inspector would be near the factory’s stun box to check whether a horse is unconscious before being stabbed.
“USDA doesn’t have the luxury or the funding to put an inspector right there at the stunning block,” Friedlander said. “There’s just no inspector there.”
Improper stunning could leave a horse conscious as it is stabbed and bled out.
A Valley Meat Co. representative disputed Friedlander, saying the USDA had notified the company that an inspector would be located at that spot.
“If you have to do it more than once, you cause intense pain, and that’s a violation of the horse slaughter act,” said Friedlander, adding that the humane slaughter law was rarely enforced in the past.
Valley Meat attorney A. Blair Dunn said that Friedlander is uninformed about Valley Meat’s specific plans and that the company is taking steps to address the concerns of its many opponents, who include Gov. Susana Martinez and most of the state’s congressional delegation. Plans to open the plant have sparked opposition from around the country.
“Friedlander is making a big deal out of what he knows and applying it to what he hasn’t seen,” Dunn said. “He doesn’t know the inside of this plant. That’s what it really comes down to.”
Friedlander said three USDA inspectors are typically stationed at a slaughter plant to inspect the head and tongue, the intestines, and finally the carcass of an animal. A USDA veterinarian typically moves about a plant working with inspectors.
Dunn said USDA officials informed De Los Santos that a federal inspector would be by the stun box. Dunn also argued that the Roswell factory is so compact that a USDA veterinarian would be aware of how effectively, or ineffectively, employees used the bolt gun.
De Los Santos plans to slaughter about 100 horses a day over a 10-hour period, making it a relatively small operation compared with big beef slaughterhouses.
Dunn added that De Los Santos has not ruled out an alternative method of putting a horse down – a gun to the head – before the animal is bled out.
“If that (the bolt gun) is not working, they have the capability to switch to the other. It’s whatever has the best results,” Dunn said.
As of July 1, the European Union will require a lifetime medical history for horse meat imports, in an effort to keep out substances banned from the food supply. Painkillers commonly given to race horses are banned.
Friedlander contended that paperwork certifying horses are free of banned substances could be easily faked.
Dunn said that is the responsibility of companies that would supply Valley Meat with animals for slaughter and, he noted, some countries where horse meat is eaten do not apply European Union standards.
Dunn said the plant passed the USDA’s inspections, and the grant of inspections could occur any time, pending a Department of Justice review of threatened litigation.
Animal welfare organizations that include Humane Society of the United States intend to sue to stop the plant, saying its byproducts would threaten water sources.
Dunn also said Valley Meat is negotiating with several outfits that would supply horses for slaughter.