What some are calling a surprise move, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted a request by Valley Meat Company in Roswell, N.M., to convert its former cattle processing facility into a horse slaughterhouse, just hours after a U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to withhold funding for horse meat inspections, adding fuel to an already controversial issue.
The USDA was named in a lawsuit filed by Valley Meat Company owner Rick de la Santos last year over what he termed intentional delays and a lack of action by the federal agency over a request for inspection of the converted cattle processing facility, which would have cleared the way for the plant's reopening. But the U.S. Justice Department moved Friday to dismiss the case, leading the meat company's legal counsel, Blair Dunn, to say he would do everything possible to keep the lawsuit active until issues like legal fees could be resolved.
While horse meat consumption in the U.S. is prohibited, the plant's owner says he intends to export the processed meat to countries like Mexico and Russia where it is legal. But the ongoing issue of whether horses are livestock or companion animals has sparked a nationwide debate that has divided even equine support organizations and horse owners.
Leading the opposition are the Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue, two of the major groups that argue horses are pets and should not be inhumanely slaughtered as food animals.
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But groups on the other side of the issue argue that when Congress failed to provide funding for horse meat inspections in 2006, it created an environment for inhumane treatment of horses which are often marshaled into overcrowded tractor trailers for shipment over long distances to Mexico and Canada for slaughter, resulting in animal deaths in transit and slaughter practices that are largely unregulated and even cruel.
The drought added to horse industry problems
In addition, proponents to horse slaughter contend the Congressional ban on inspections came when a serious drought in North America was just becoming acute, which in turn decimated forage supplies and drove up the cost of feed, forcing horse owners to either sell their animals at auction or to abandon them, and in many cases left to die. So many horses hitting the auction block at the same time forced prices down considerably and opened the doors to mass transit of animals to slaughterhouses across international borders.
Since 2006, an estimated 140,000 or more horses are shipped annually, and that number has been rising each year since then.
USDA defends last Friday’s decision to grant the conversion of the New Mexico plant to a horse slaughter facility, arguing it is legally obligated to take action on Valley Meat Company's request for plant inspection to conform to the law.
"Since Congress has not yet acted to ban horse slaughter inspections, the department is legally required to issue a grant of inspection to the company," a USDA spokeswoman said on Friday.
In an effort to block the federal agency from granting the request for inspection at the Roswell plant, an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a petition with USDA arguing horse meat was not safe to consume by humans because of the types and amount of drugs regularly administered to equine.
But USDA denied the petition, arguing the science is available and already utilized to detect over 130 pesticides and veterinary drugs in all types of meat, including horse meat, forcing opponents to the legalization of horse slaughterhouses to threaten additional lawsuits to stop the issue from going forward.
While both Senate and House Appropriations Committees failed to approve funding for horse meat inspections for the 2014 fiscal year, Congress would need to reinstate the ban in the coming weeks by voting to deny budgetary support of inspections if they want the issue to die, but so far no date has been set to consider agriculture appropriations.
In the interim, Valley Meat Company becomes the first horse slaughterhouse to receive USDA inspection approval, paving the way for re-opening the facility in the near future. In addition, the federal agency says it may soon address other requests for horse slaughterhouse inspections—one from Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and the other from Responsible Transportation in Iowa.
USDA is expected to approve those requests unless Congress makes a final decision on the issue.
Earlier this year the Obama administration's budget proposal eliminated funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouse facilities, but skeptics say it is uncertain whether an agriculture appropriations bill will even be considered this year.