Investigators are still examining evidence in a fire that damaged refrigeration units at Valley Meat Company in Roswell, New Mexico, over the weekend, but a Chaves County Sheriff's Department spokesman says an unknown substance found on the units indicates the fire was intentionally set and the result of arson.
The meat processing facility has been closed in recent months but is scheduled to reopen Monday, Aug. 5, in a controversial move to switch operations from cattle processing to a horse slaughterhouse. Investigators have confirmed they are investigating the possibility the fire was designed to prevent the facility from reopening on schedule.
Valley Meat Company has captured headlines in recent months and has been at the center of a national debate over the ethics of slaughtering horses and exporting the meat to countries where human consumption is both legal and common.
On June 30, USDA issued a permit to Valley Meat Company to operate a horse slaughterhouse, saying they were required to do so by law because the company had met all necessary requirements. While horse meat is not legal for human consumption in the United States, no law prohibits exporting the meat to other countries, provided the product passes federal inspection.
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The company previously announced they would reopen next Monday, but that opening depends on court action Friday when a federal judge considers a lawsuit filed by animal rights groups designed to block the company's plan.
Fire erupted just outside the plant Saturday night and engulfed several refrigeration units before a passing motorist spotted the blaze and called 911. The plant is located about eight miles outside of the Roswell city limits.
Valley Meat Company owner Rick De Los Santos says someone apparently jumped a fence at the facility and intentionally poured an accelerant on five compressors to start the fire. He says if not for the report from the motorist and quick response by fire officials, "the fire could have been more damaging.
"It didn't start on its own," De Los Santos told reporters. "Someone started it."
De Los Santos says the refrigeration units are critical for the plant's scheduled reopening Monday and will need to be replaced to meet that deadline. The plant will need to lay out about $18,000 to get the units running again.
De Los Santos also says there have been a "large number" of threats against both the plant and him personally since he revealed plans to switch the plant's operations from beef processing to a horse processing facility last year.
Many animal rights groups argue that horses are companion animals and should not be slaughtered like livestock, and say because of chemical and medications given to horses regularly, horse meat is not safe for human consumption. Last week high profile support for those opposed to the plant's opening was offered when actor Robert Redford and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson formed a foundation opposing the slaughter of horses.
In contrast to those who oppose horse slaughter as inhumane, others support it saying it is the most humane method of disposing of unwanted, aged and often abandoned horses that often suffer from starvation or are left to face predators. They say many horses are mass-transported to slaughter facilities in Mexico where the animals face worse treatment.
An attorney for the Roswell plant says if a suspect is arrested in the suspected arson incident, they could face federal charges under terms of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. He also says depending on a court hearing Friday, the refrigeration units will be replaced and the plant will open on Monday as scheduled.