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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Minibus Drives Forward for Animal Welfare Funding, Backward for Horse Slaughter

A conference committee has finished its work on the “minibus,” a combination of three out of the twelve appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2012, covering departments including agriculture, commerce, and transportation. The final package, which also includes a continuing resolution to keep the rest of the federal government operating through mid-December, will now go to the House and the Senate for an up or down vote this week, with no opportunity for amendments. Some of the news is quite good for animal welfare, with remarkable breakthroughs on key issues, and other news is terribly disappointing.

First, the bad news: The committee stripped the House-approved language prohibiting the use of U.S. Department of Agriculture funds for horse slaughter inspections, a defunding provision which had been in every agriculture spending bill since 2005. It reverses six years of U.S. policy against subsidizing foreign-owned horse slaughter plants, and it could pave the way for the resumption of equine abattoirs here on American soil. That change might take some time, since the states would have to allow horse slaughter plants, and there would undoubtedly be court challenges. But it’s extremely disappointing that the committee took this step backward for America’s iconic horses, and is willing to waste tax dollars on the cruel horse slaughter industry.

HorseAmericans don’t eat horses, and they don’t want them inhumanely killed, shrink-wrapped, and sent to Japan or Belgium for a high-priced appetizer. Horse slaughter lobbyists have been using a recent Government Accountability Office report to argue for the resumed use of tax dollars to produce horse meat for foreign gourmands, but the report is much more nuanced than they claim: One of the GAO’s recommendations is to ban the export of American horses for slaughter in Canada and Mexico. That’s exactly what we must do, and animal advocates must now redouble our efforts to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, S. 1176 and H.R. 2966, to finally stop American horses from ending up on foreign dinner plates.

There was, however, great news for horses also contained in the committee’s bill: Congress is poised to increase funding for enforcement of the decades-old Horse Protection Act, which has been stuck at the woefully inadequate ceiling of $500,000 since 1976. The minibus provides $696,000 for the Horse Protection Act—almost a 40% jump, and a very important signal that USDA needs additional resources to step up its enforcement of this federal law against widespread cruelty to show horses. (The conferees split the difference, since the Senate bill had $891,000 and the House bill had $500,000). The Horse Protection Act combats the criminal act of “soring” horses, the intentional use of caustic chemicals and sharp objects on horses’ hooves and legs to make it painful for them to step down and give them an artificial, high-stepping gait in show competitions—in other words, deliberate, illegal infliction of severe pain in order to cheat and win prizes.

In fact, in a very tough budget climate, with so many lawmakers focused on deficit reduction this year, we fought hard to keep funding levels strong for a range of animal welfare programs. The HSUS and HSLF worked with Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to mobilize a sign-on letter, and won the bipartisan support of 125 representatives and 34 senators requesting modest funding levels that are critically needed to implement and enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the Horse Protection Act, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the federal animal fighting law, and programs to help prepare for the needs of animals in disasters and to address the shortage of veterinarians in rural and inner-city areas and public health practice. We also worked with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., to push specifically for the increased funding to crack down on horse soring.

Many programs were competing for dollars, and USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service took sizable cuts overall ($350 million and $47 million, respectively), as did many individual accounts. But, even within this broader political landscape, we were able to maintain consistent or increased funding levels for most animal welfare programs. Here’s where the funding levels stand in the minibus:

$27,087,000 for Animal Care—a $5,152,000 increase (almost a 20% jump), compared to the FY11 level of $21,935,000 and House bill level of $22 million. This is on top of the $4 million that was recently approved in reprogrammed funds specifically for improved enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act at large-scale puppy mills, which I reported earlier this month.

$16,275,000 for Investigative & Enforcement Services—a $2,320,000 increase, compared to $13,955,000 in FY11 and $14.5 million in the House bill. A portion of IES’ budget goes for animal welfare enforcement work; they also do follow-up on various other APHIS cases.

$85,621,000 for the Office of Inspector General, higher than either the House bill’s $80 million or the Senate bill’s $84,121,000, but below the $88,547,550 level in FY11. The OIG’s oversight work covers a broad span of issues, including many animal protection concerns such as animal fighting, puppy mills, horse soring, humane slaughter, and downed animals. 

$4,790,000 for veterinary student loan forgiveness, the same level as FY11 and in the Senate bill, and above the $4.2 million in the House bill. This program helps ease the shortage of veterinarians practicing in rural areas, as well as government positions (e.g., inspectors responsible for food safety and humane slaughter), by forgiving student debt for those who choose to practice in one of those underserved areas.

On humane slaughter enforcement, the minibus specifies that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should have no fewer than 148 full-time equivalent positions dedicated solely to inspections and enforcement related to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act—the same number required in FY11. More importantly, the final bill incorporated favorable committee report language urging USDA to improve its enforcement of the humane slaughter law:

Humane Slaughter—The Committee directs FSIS to provide a report to the Committee within 120 days of enactment of this act on the implementation of objective scoring methods being undertaken by FSIS to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act [HMSA], including what techniques have been adopted and to what degree, metrics used to determine whether or not these techniques have been successful in identifying and preventing HMSA violations, and any plans for expansion of these efforts. The Committee has long been supportive of objective standards for enforcement of HMSA, and was pleased that FSIS recently announced a final compliance guide for voluntary in-plant video monitoring.

The Committee has been informed that funding provided in fiscal year 2010 specifically for enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act may have been used to fund personnel whose responsibilities are not focused on humane handling. The Committee directs FSIS to ensure that personnel hired with funding provided specifically for Humane Methods of Slaughter Act enforcement focus their attention on overseeing compliance with humane handling rules for live animals as they arrive and are offloaded and handled in pens, chutes, and stunning areas.

The bill also incorporated favorable report language on animal fighting urging USDA to crack down on illegal dogfighting and cockfighting:

Animal Fighting—The Committee is very concerned about reports of illegal animal fighting activities and directs the Secretary to work with relevant agencies on the most effective and proper means for investigating and enforcing laws and regulations regarding these activities.

And the bill addressed the issue of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, with report language directed to the Food and Drug Administration:

Antimicrobial Resistance—The Committee commends the FDA for publishing Draft Guidance for Industry No. 209 and for conducting a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence related to antimicrobial use in food animal production and antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. However, over a year has passed since this draft guidance was released and the FDA has not yet identified a timeframe for finalizing and implementing this guidance or for taking other proposed steps to address antimicrobial resistance. Therefore, the Committee directs the FDA to set a timeline for when Guidance No. 209 and any implementing guidance will be finalized, when the FDA intends to release any changes to the Veterinary Feed Directive, and when it plans to issue an order regarding extra label uses of Cephalosporin drugs in food-producing animals. The Committee also recommends that FDA examine medically important antimicrobial drugs currently approved for use in food-producing animals and take steps to assure that such products are aligned with current safety standards.

Finally, the bill includes an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., supported by HSUS and HSLF, which prohibits agribusiness subsidy direct payments to millionaires (individuals or legal entities with an average Adjusted Gross Income in excess of $1 million). This may be the first time that an agriculture appropriations bill has tackled the tough issue of the multi-billion-dollar federal subsidies for industrial agriculture, including many of the highest-earning and most profitable farmers in the land. And it may be a sign that Congress finally has the political will to wean big agribusiness off the government teat.

On balance, while the omission of the horse slaughter provision is a major disappointment, animal advocates made great progress in the minibus on a wide range of issues of concern. We are grateful to House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Ranking Member Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Senate Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., and Ranking Member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for their leadership on making sure animal welfare programs are adequately funded and enforced, and to the bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sens. Boxer, Vitter, and Landrieu, and Reps. Blumenauer, Smith, Whitfield, Roe, and Cohen who advocated in support of these funding levels. And thanks to all of the animal advocates who contacted their own members of Congress, while we have many fights ahead, we also have much reason to celebrate.

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