Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., which has been idle for more than a year,… (Jeri Clausing / Associated…)
LAS VEGAS – Federal officials on Friday approved a Roswell, N.M., company’s application to convert its cattle slaughterhouse into a horse processing plant in a move that paves the way for the resumption of horse slaughter in the U.S.
Officials also indicated that they would soon grant similar permits to facilities in Iowa and Missouri.
Animal welfare groups on Friday immediately said they would sue to halt the move – the latest face-off in the debate over the treatment of animals that over the years have come to symbolize the American West.
Two groups, the U.S. Humane Society and Front Range Equine Rescue, said in a release that they would fight the government in court. They say the approval is premature in light of building momentum in Washington to continue the ban on horse slaughter. The last U.S. slaughterhouse closed in 2006.
Humane Society officials pointed out that the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees have voted to halt all funding for horse slaughter for fiscal year 2014.
The group says the USDA’s approval Friday pending inspections means that the agency could spend millions of taxpayer dollars to start such reviews of horse slaughter plants, only to have Congress terminate the process in coming months.
“The USDA’s decision to start up domestic horse slaughter, while at the same time asking Congress to defund it, is bizarre and unwarranted," Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's senior vice president, said in a statement.
“We intend to hold the Obama administration accountable in federal court for this inhumane, wasteful and illegal decision.”
Owners of Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, which applied for the federal license, could not be reached for comment. The company has said it wants to export the horse meat.
It was not clear when the plant would begin operations or when federal authorities might conduct the promised inspection. Animal activists say they plan to picket the plant if it begins slaughtering horses.
Activists say that many domestic horses receive regular drug regimens that could be harmful to humans if the meat is consumed or if runoff from animal offal mixes with drinking water.
Bruce Wagman, a lawyer representing Front Range Equine Rescue, said the USDA is breaking the law. “They have failed to engage in the environmental review of a potentially toxic environmental hazard," he told the Los Angeles Times.
USDA officials say they are bound by law to approve the permit.
"Since Congress has not yet acted to ban horse slaughter inspection, FSIS is legally required to issue a grant of inspection today to Valley Meats in Roswell, N.M., for equine slaughter,” the agency's statement said.
It said federal law requires the government to approve an application for inspection once a plant has met all requirements, as the Roswell facility has. “The administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the department must continue to comply with current law," the agency said.
Rick De Los Santos, owner of the New Mexico facility, sued the Department of Agriculture last year, alleging that the agency was stalling its review of the application because of public pressure. The lawsuit charged that the delays had cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. The USDA reinspected the plant earlier this year.
The horse slaughter issue has also played out in Washington, where President Obama is at odds with Congress over the issue. The administration’s recent budget proposal eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would effectively reinstate a ban on the practice.
Congress eliminated such funding in 2006, which forced a shutdown of domestic slaughter facilities, but restored the funding in 2011. That action prompted several companies nationwide, including Valley Meat, to seek permission to open plants.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on Friday also criticized the USDA’s decision.
“The writing is on the wall – Americans don’t want our horses slaughtered, here or in any other country. Moving ahead with a government program to fund horse slaughter inspections is a cruel, reckless and fiscally irresponsible move,” said Nancy Perry, ASPCA senior vice president for government relations.
“The USDA is knowingly diverting tax dollars from programs that protect American consumers to programs that jeopardize them. It is time for Congress to take action to prevent American horses from suffering this terrible fate and stop horse slaughter in the U.S. once and for all.”
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