Deirdre Shesgreen, Springfield News-Leader
WASHINGTON, Mo. - The Missouri company seeking to open a horse-slaughter facility in Gallatin is a small "family operation" that will run a humane plant with tight testing standards, said David Rains, vice president of Rains Natural Meats.
Rains predicted there would be a big domestic and foreign market for his company's horse-meat products, saying he's already had considerable interest for both human and animal consumption.
"There's going to be a surprising domestic market, and there is an export market," said Rains. "There's some interest on the zoo side, too."
Rains said he and his brother, Steve Rains, president of the company, have been working closely with food safety officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an equine consultant to modify all the equipment in their Gallatin facility, in nothern Missouri's Daviess County, so it can "humanely handle horses."
Rains Natural Meats used to process antibiotic-free and hormone-free pork and beef, he said, but it closed when new regulations put the company at a competitive disadvantage with bigger firms. Horse slaughter will allow his family to start up the business again.
USDA officials have signaled that Rains Natural Meats is on the verge of securing a permit from the Food Safety Inspection Service to open the horse slaughter plant.
FSIS has already issued two other permits in recent days for horse-slaughter operations - one in New Mexico and another in Iowa.
The federal action has reignited a battle over the slaughter and consumption of horse meat. Earlier this week, animal rights groups filed suit against USDA in an effort to block the commercial processing of horse meat in the U.S.
The fight began in 2011, when Congress nixed a longtime provision barring the USDA from using federal funds to inspect any meat processing plants that slaughtered horses.
Plants that aren't inspected by the USDA cannot ship meat across state lines, so the provision, which had been in place since 2006, had effectively ended domestic horse slaughter.
Because Congress let the ban lapse, the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service is legally required to issue inspection permits to any horse-slaughter facility that meets federal safety, health and other standards.
The Humane Society of the United States and other opponents argue that slaughtering horses is inhumane and unnecessary. But supporters - including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. - say that slaughter is a good end-of-life option for horses whose owners no longer need or want them.
Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate agriculture spending sub-committee, supported reversing the ban in 2011, saying it had led to an increase in abandoned and neglected horses in Missouri and elsewhere.
Rains echoed that assessment, saying the community in Gallatin has been generally supportive of his family's plans because they've seen firsthand the abandoned horses.
"It's a rural area and there have been horses that have been just dumped," he said. "People could no longer afford to take care of them."
Horses are "an extremely high quality protein source that's been used in other countries for a long, long time," Rains said. "It's a waste not to use it."
Americans generally don't eat horse meat. But it's a delicacy in some European and Asian countries, where Rains and others see a major export opportunity.
He said the facility would not use a controversial captive-bolt gun to euthanize the horses, instead relying on a .410 shotgun with a slug to kill them.
He conceded that there are "health issues and groundwater contamination issues" involved in horse slaughter.
Some opponents note that horses - particularly racetrack animals - are often injected with drugs that may be unsafe for human consumption.
But Rains said his company will "test every horse" using the University of Missouri's veterinary diagnostic lab. "They will not be processed unless they are negative," he said.
Rains said he is not sure how many horses the plant will handle. "We're not a big plant by any means," he said. "It'll be limited at this time."
Asked if he was worried that news about a revived horse slaughter industry in the U.S. would spark a fresh debate in Congress and a push to renew the ban, Rains said: "It's possible, and it's a concern."
"But," he added, "but right now it's legal and hopefully people will come to their senses and realize there's not any other viable option" to deal with unwanted horses.