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A controversial bill that would establish a state meat inspection program as a first step to opening horse slaughter and processing plants in Nebraska advanced from the Legislature's Agriculture Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

The bill (LB305), which now could be debated by the full Legislature, would direct the state Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a meat inspection and poultry inspection agency for human food products by 2013. It would have to comply with federal regulations.

LB305 was introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, who said it could open markets for horse, elk, ostrich, bison and grass-fed cattle processing. The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill gave states more authority to inspect meat and poultry and allows state-inspected meat to enter interstate commerce.

The bill also could help solve the growing problem of people abandoning horses or allowing them to starve because they can't sell them or no longer can take care of them.

Seven senators on the committee voted to advance the bill with no amendments. One, Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, voted no, saying it had nothing to do with the horse slaughter issue, but the bill did not make it any easier to open a plant to process cattle or hogs.

Any state meat inspection program would have to be better than or equal to the USDA program. And it could be more expensive, he said.

"There's nothing in this bill that will do anything other than process horses," he said.

Larson said the bill would be both for horse processing and for small, local facilities that process other animals. He said state meat inspection offers an advantage because inspectors would be easier to work with and more responsive.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, chairman of the committee, said any horse processing plant that would open as a result of the bill would have to be a state-of-the-art facility designed by someone like Temple Grandin, who is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and consultant to the livestock industry on facility design and animal behavior, welfare and handling.

"We are going to treat horses in the way people want them to be treated," Carlson told the committee.

The meat inspection program would be funded at least initially by $200,000 from the Commercial Feed Administration Cash Fund, and later by fees for the inspection services.

There still are questions about how much money could be generated, how many inspectors the state could afford and how many plants could be opened.

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Committee members voting to advance the bill were Larson, Carlson and Sens. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, Burke Harr of Omaha, Norm Wallman of Cortland and Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

Opponents of horse slaughter and processing in Nebraska say horses would be hauled to the plant from all over the country, and those trips cause suffering.

"Killer buyers" often outbid rescue groups to gather unwanted horses, many of which are healthy and young. Those horses are killed for profit, not humane reasons, they say.

Seventy to 80 percent of people surveyed during the past dozen years oppose the slaughter of horses for human food.

Still, Nebraska is not alone in considering the revival of horse processing plants.

The South Dakota Legislature is said to be looking at two bills, one that would study the feasibility of a slaughter plant there and another that would authorize a loan from an economic development fund for construction of a plant. 

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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