Horse Welfare:

Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter

GAO-11-228: Published: Jun 22, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 22, 2011.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Lisa R. Shames
(202) 512-2649
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Since fiscal year 2006, Congress has annually prohibited the use of federal funds to inspect horses destined for food, effectively prohibiting domestic slaughter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for overseeing the welfare of horses transported for slaughter. Congress directed GAO to examine horse welfare since cessation of domestic slaughter in 2007. GAO examined (1) the effect on the U.S. horse market, if any, since cessation; (2) any impact of these market changes on horse welfare and on states, local governments, tribes, and animal welfare organizations; and (3) challenges, if any, to USDA's oversight of the transport and welfare of U.S. horses exported for slaughter. GAO analyzed horse price and shipping data, and interviewed officials from USDA, state and local governments, tribes, the livestock industry, and animal welfare organizations, and reviewed documents they provided..

Since domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007, the slaughter horse market has shifted to Canada and Mexico. From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 and 660 percent to Canada and Mexico, respectively. As a result, nearly the same number of U.S. horses was transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010--nearly 138,000--as was slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased. Available data show that horse prices declined since 2007, mainly for the lower-priced horses that are more likely to be bought for slaughter. GAO analysis of horse sale data estimates that closing domestic horse slaughtering facilities significantly and negatively affected lower-to-medium priced horses by 8 to 21 percent; higher-priced horses appear not to have lost value for that reason. Also, GAO estimates the economic downturn reduced prices for all horses by 4 to 5 percent. Comprehensive, national data are lacking, but state, local government, and animal welfare organizations report a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007. For example, Colorado data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60 percent from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. Also, California, Texas, and Florida reported more horses abandoned on private or state land since 2007. These changes have strained resources, according to state data and officials that GAO interviewed. State, local, tribal, and horse industry officials generally attributed these increases in neglect and abandonments to cessation of domestic slaughter and the economic downturn. Others, including representatives from some animal welfare organizations, questioned the relevance of cessation of slaughter to these problems. USDA faces three broad challenges in overseeing the welfare of horses during transport to slaughter. First, among other management challenges, the current transport regulation only applies to horses transported directly to slaughtering facilities. A 2007 proposed rule would more broadly include horses moved first to stockyards, assembly points, and feedlots before being transported to Canada and Mexico, but delays in issuing a final rule have prevented USDA from protecting horses during much of their transit to slaughtering facilities. In addition, GAO found that many owner/shipper certificates, which document compliance with the regulation, are being returned to USDA without key information, if they are returned at all. Second, annual legislative prohibitions on USDA's use of federal funds for inspecting horses impede USDA's ability to improve compliance with, and enforcement of, the transport regulation. Third, GAO analysis shows that U.S. horses intended for slaughter are now traveling significantly greater distances to reach their final destination, where they are not covered by U.S. humane slaughter protections. With cessation of domestic slaughter, USDA lacks staff and resources at the borders and foreign slaughtering facilities that it once had in domestic facilities to help identify problems with shipping paperwork or the condition of horses before they are slaughtered. GAO suggests that Congress may wish to reconsider restrictions on the use of federal funds to inspect horses for slaughter or, instead, consider a permanent ban on horse slaughter. GAO recommends that USDA issue a final rule to protect horses through more of the transportation chain to slaughter and consider ways to better leverage resources for compliance activities. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and noted specific actions it will take to implement them.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress may wish to reconsider the annual restrictions first instituted in fiscal year 2006 on USDA's use of appropriated funds to inspect horses in transit to, and at, domestic slaughtering facilities. Specifically, to allow USDA to better ensure horse welfare and identify potential violations of the Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulation, Congress may wish to consider allowing USDA to again use appropriated funds to inspect U.S. horses being transported to slaughter.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider allowing USDA to again use appropriated funds to inspect horses at domestic slaughtering facilities, as authorized by the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider instituting an explicit ban on the domestic slaughter of horses and export of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in foreign countries.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA/APHIS issued a final rule in the Federal Register on Sept. 7, 2011, amending the "Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter" regulations found at 9 CFR Part 88. Among other things, this rule added a definition of "equine for slaughter" and made other changes to extend the protections afforded by the regulations to horses and other equines bound for slaughter but delivered first to an assembly point, feedlot, or stockyard.

    Recommendation: To better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to issue as final a proposed rule to amend the Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter regulation to define "equines for slaughter" so that USDA's oversight and the regulation's protections extend to more of the transportation chain.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In speaking with APHIS officials in September 2015, they indicated that they have taken steps to implement this recommendation by leveraging other resources to better ensure the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates. For example, they said they have asked APHIS animal health technicians to visit the export pens along the Mexico border and familiarize owner/shippers and State of Texas staff with the transport program requirements, including the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates. In addition, these officials noted that APHIS conducted a number of training sessions at various U.S. locations between October 2011 and 2015 for APHIS, other federal, and state officials, as well as shipper, horse industry, horse auction, and horse welfare group representatives, to discuss, among other things, the transport program regulations and the importance of completing and returning owner/shipper certificates. However, APHIS officials said that they have not taken steps to automate the certificate data, citing the associated cost and their view that doing so would not improve horse welfare. We noted in our report, and we continue to believe, that automating certificate data would make it easier for APHIS to analyze these data to identify problem areas for management attention and possible enforcement action, such as patterns of violations or other problems associated with particular shippers, border crossings, or slaughtering facilities. It would also allow the agency to easily identify buying trends and common shipping routes. In addition, automating certificate data on the number of horses in each shipment could potentially provide USDA a more accurate account of the number of U.S. horses exported for slaughter. Furthermore, we note that agency documents previously indicated that APHIS planned to develop a database of information provided on owner/shipper certificates to, in part, assist law enforcement or state agencies in tracing lost or stolen horses or other equines.

    Recommendation: To better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of APHIS to, in light of the transport program's limited staff and funding, consider and implement options to leverage other agency resources to assist the program to better ensure the completion, return, and evaluation of owner/shipper certificates needed for enforcement purposes, such as using other APHIS staff to assist with compliance activities and for automating certificate data to identify potential problems requiring management attention.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In written comments on this recommendation in November 2011, USDA indicated that it consulted with CFIA on the existing cooperative agreement and determined that it meets each party's respective program needs to monitor horse welfare. Accordingly, no changes were made to the agreement, but USDA indicated that CFIA provided assurances that the understanding in the current agreement would be met and past problems with owner/shipper certificates being returned incomplete would be addressed. In speaking with APHIS officials in September 2015, they reiterated that this understanding had been reached with CFIA. They also stated the belief that things are working well with CFIA, and that owner/shipper certificates are being returned and are complete. However, these officials said that they do not have data to corroborate this belief. In addition, they said APHIS currently does not have anyone in APHIS headquarters checking to ensure that all certificates are returned and are complete. They opined that having someone do this checking would not improve horse welfare. However, we note that APHIS previously said, in responding to our recommendations, that it was training administrative personnel to evaluate certificates for enforcement purposes. Furthermore, APHIS regulations and documents make clear the importance of the completion, return, and evaluation of owner/shipper certificates for enforcement purposes, and note that owner/shippers who provide false information on certificates may be subject to civil and criminal penalties.

    Recommendation: To better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of APHIS to revisit, as appropriate, the formal cooperative agreement between APHIS and CFIA to better ensure that the agencies have a mutual understanding of the assistance APHIS seeks from CFIA on the inspection of U.S. horses intended for slaughter at Canadian slaughtering facilities, including the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates from these facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2011, USDA and SAGARPA signed an agreement regarding the return of owner-shipper certificates. However, this agreement is limited to just a few sentences stating that APHIS will provide self-addressed, prepaid envelopes to SAGARPA for the return of owner/shipper certificates and that SAGARPA will use these envelopes to return certificates to APHIS on a weekly basis. The agreement says nothing about the agencies' mutual understanding of the assistance APHIS seeks from SAGARPA on the inspection of U.S. horses intended for slaughter at Mexican border crossings and slaughtering facilities and the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates from these facilities. Further, in contrast, the cooperative agreement between APHIS and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency outlines in detail over several pages the assistance each party expects from the other, with each party pledging to help the other enforce its regulations. Nevertheless, in speaking with APHIS officials in September 2015, they stated the belief that things are working well with SAGARPA, and that owner/shipper certificates are being returned from border crossings and are complete. However, these officials said they do not have data to corroborate this belief. In addition, they said that APHIS currently does not have anyone in APHIS headquarters checking to ensure that certificates are returned and are complete. They opined that having someone do this checking would not improve horse welfare. However, we note that APHIS previously said, in responding to our recommendations, that it was training administrative personnel to evaluate certificates for enforcement purposes. Furthermore, APHIS regulations and documents make clear the importance of the completion, return, and evaluation of owner/shipper certificates for enforcement purposes, and note that owner/shippers who provide false information on certificates may be subject to civil and criminal penalties.

    Recommendation: To better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of APHIS to seek a formal cooperative agreement with Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentacion (Mexico) (SAGARPA) that describes the agencies' mutual understanding of the assistance APHIS seeks from SAGARPA on the inspection of U.S. horses intended for slaughter at Mexican border crossings and slaughtering facilities and the completion and return of owner/shipper certificates from these facilities. In the event that SAGARPA declines to enter into a formal cooperative agreement, seek such an agreement with the Texas Department of Agriculture to ensure that this agency will cooperate with the completion, collection, and return of owner/shipper certificates from Texas border crossings through which most shipments of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in Mexico pass.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 28, 2016

Sep 26, 2016

Aug 15, 2016

Jul 26, 2016

Jul 21, 2016

Jul 14, 2016

Jul 7, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here