Behind the Curtain at USDA Market News
As those in the horse advocacy world are aware, effective January 15, 2015, the European Union banned all imports of horse meat from Mexico. Since then, there has been a lot of speculation regarding the number of horses shipped to Mexico and the price currently paid to the kill buyer for a pound of horse meat.
Weekly reports of slaughter horse exports to Mexico published by USDA Market News Service show that as of November 5, 2015, 70,564 slaughter horses were shipped. In 2014, 88,670 slaughter horses were shipped in the same timeframe according to the same source, which is a decrease of 18,106 horses.
While this is excellent news for our horses, we at Animals' Angels wanted to know exactly how these numbers are obtained and just how reliable these figures really are.
As for the amount supposedly being paid per pound, the kill buyers themselves have been spreading rumors aboutdrastically increased prices, quoting figures between 0.80 cents a pound to 1.00 dollar pound in an attempt to justify the exorbitantly high prices for the horses sold via their broker programs.
Animals' Angels has obtained and analyzed hundreds of documents from Mexican customs, USDA/AMS, the Texas Department of Agriculture as well as the New Mexico Livestock Board and the results were quite interesting.
Our research has revealed that there is absolutely no significant increase in the price paid to any kill buyer for a pound of horse meat; prices remained steady between 0.30-0.59 cents per pound across the board. Additionally, several kill buyers such as Rio Grande Livestock Auction and Les McDaniel stopped shipping horses to Mexico for slaughter altogether according to Customs Data.
You can read more in our comprehensive report here, where we have laid out all of the details and figures from our research.
In our effort to determine how the slaughter horse shipment figures are reported to the public, Animals' Angels submitted an official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USDA Market News, asking for information on how the export numbers are obtained as well as any reports and/or protocols available.
To our surprise, on 10/29/15 we received a phone call from USDA/AMS Deputy Director Jim Bernau himself. Even more surprising was Mr. Bernau's attitude.
With an extremely condescending tone, Mr. Bernau stated that there was no written procedure on how the numbers for the market reports are gathered. Rather, his office was in touch with confidential "contacts" who are "in the know" and that all information regarding the process was strictly confidential.
He compared it to:
"It's like if you went up the road to the car dealership and asked them how many cars they sold this week. They won't tell you because their finances and info are confidential."
Mr. Bernau stated that his market reporters are trained to obtain the information from their confidential contacts, stating:
"It's like going to the doctor. They know from experience how to make a diagnosis and determine what to report."
When questioned regarding the ability to validate the accuracy of the figures through external means, Mr. Bernau advised that neither the AMS office nor their reporters kept notes or any other reference material, nor would they consult shipment records of any sort.
When we requested this information in writing, Mr. Bernau sent a brief email stating:
"Market News collects data for many agricultural items through conversations with brokers, processors, agents, buyers and sellers by our trained reporters. Market News does not keep internal documents or files representing this information reported on the AL_LS604, New Mexico to Mexico Livestock Exports, other than the official report released to the public on our website."
With no protocols in place and no internal reports kept there is no way to confirm if the information provided every week is accurate. Even more concerning, USDA/AMS is obtaining this information from contacts that clearly have an agenda and an interest in the performance of the horse slaughter industry, such as brokers and sellers. What guarantee is there that they provide accurate data to USDA/AMS when there are no official controls in place?
donkeys and burros observed by AA investigators at Carnicos de Jerez Plant earlier in 2015
Our concerns were also fueled by the fact that our investigators have been documenting a significantly increased number of donkeys and burros at feedlots and export pens. Are these animals included in the slaughter horse shipment figures thereby increasing that number? By all accounts, it would appear so.
sealed truck load of donkeys followed from TX export pen to Mexico border earlier in 2015
Reviewing the weekly exports from New Mexico to Mexico, Animals' Angels noted that there are no shipments of any donkeys, mules, burros or ponies in 2015. Reaching out to the New Mexico Livestock Board Animals' Angels was informed that:
"There are loads of 'Mixed' equine, which may include mules, donkeys, or burros, however our records only indicate that it is a mixed load of equine."
A similar issue arose when we reviewed the Texas to Mexico reports. The Texas Department of Agriculture shipment records indicate that the only donkeys, mules, and burros exported from Texas to Mexico in 2015 are for breeding or work purposes. When we questioned the lack of shipments of any donkeys, mules or burros for slaughter, we were advised by a TDA representative that it is left up to the "operator" (kill buyer) to complete the Health Certificate. If the operator does not specify the animal (equine) being shipped for slaughter is a donkey, mule or burro, the export pen does not add that information.
In other words, these animals are indeed included in the export pens' slaughter horse shipment figures instead of being listed separately.
kill buyer collecting station
It therefore appears that any donkey, burro or mule destined for slaughteris simply added to the total number of horses shipped to slaughter and not listed in the separate burro/mule section of the USDA/AMS report. And not just on the USDA/AMS report, but in the export pens' official reporting system as well.
What does this all mean? It means that there is absolutely no way of actually knowing how many horses were really shipped to slaughter in 2015. Given the increased number of donkeys and burros observed at the feedlots, export pens, and slaughter plants, the figure for slaughter horses could be way down. However, without any corroborating reports or data of any sort whatsoever available for review, it will remain a mystery.