Two dogs raised for human consumption in South Korea and rescued by the Humane Society at an animal shelter in Virginia. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill advanced a proposal to outlaw dog and cat consumption last week — but not because Americans are eating their pets. 

Backers say the purpose of the proposed measure is to support international animal rights activists.

If passed, the ban would send a clear signal that the United States condemns the dog and cat meat trades in East Asia, said Sara Amundson, executive director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which lobbied for the measure. The Humane Society estimates that 30 million dogs are killed for food each year, mostly in China and South Korea. Activists there have questioned why the United States does not have its own dog meat law.

“There are a number of countries in Asia where the trade still exists very strongly,” Amundson said. “One of the messages that came to us was, ‘look, if you’re going to come to our countries and export your concept of what should be done with animals, shouldn’t you make sure a trade does not take hold in the U.S.?’ ”

Documented cases of dog and cat consumption in the United States are rare. A database search of 10 years of U.S. newspaper articles turned up a single case from 2008, when two maintenance workers at a Hawaii golf club were accused of stealing a German shepherd-Lab mix from a man who was golfing there, then later eating it.

Representatives from the Humane Society and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which also backed the measure, said they are not aware of any other cases in the past 10 years or of any evidence of a U.S. dog meat trade. Only four incidents have been widely reported in the past three decades. 

But the animal rights activists raised concerns that, in the absence of a specific ban, such a practice could theoretically continue in secret. Only six states explicitly ban dog- and cat-eating: Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, New York, Virginia and California. In other states, animal welfare laws have been used to prosecute isolated instances of dog slaughter and consumption.

The measure would make it a felony to knowingly slaughter, buy or sell a dog or cat to eat. Violations would be punishable by a fine or up to a year in prison.

“I think when it comes to laws protecting animals, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Ashley Byrne, a campaign coordinator for PETA. “Most of us would prefer to see a law in place that would prevent something cruel from happening to animals — we want this to be illegal.” 

More important, the ban has symbolic power, backers said. Rep. Jeff Denham, the California Republican who introduced the measure last week, told a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee that the bill is needed even if there's no evidence anyone in the United States is eating dogs or cats. (A spokesman declined to answer follow-up questions.)

“Adopting this policy signals that the U.S. will not tolerate this disturbing practice in our country,” he said. “It demonstrates our unity with other nations that have banned dog and cat meat, and it bolsters existing international efforts to crack down on the practice worldwide.”

How it will bolster those efforts remains to be seen. But U.S.-led campaigns to ban dog and cat consumption in Asia have been criticized as meddling and hypocritical, and the notion that 44 U.S. states “allow” an active dog meat trade, while not entirely accurate, still surfaces in petitions and articles.

According to Humane Society International, China, South Korea, India, Vietnam and Indonesia host the world's largest dog meat industries, though South Korea is the only country to farm dogs for human consumption.

The practice is limited and fading in popularity. But dog meat has remained on some menus over the protests of animal rights groups, because it is believed to have medicinal properties and cultural significance. Dog meat defenders have claimed Western groups are exporting their ideologies abroad without attending to their own issues, including poor living conditions for pigs, cows and chickens in U.S. factory farms.

Advocates hope this proposal will help diffuse some of those criticisms.

“We shouldn't be telling other cultures to do something we allow in 44 states,” Amundson said.

The proposal will next move to the House floor with the rest of the farm bill, where it's expected to see a vote as early as next month. But lawmakers and farm groups say the passage of the $867 billion legislative package could be delayed by a proposal to overhaul work requirements in the food stamp program.

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