Federal authorities have granted permission for horse-meat inspections at a New Mexico abattoir, clearing the way for the resumption of horse slaughter on US soil.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced approval for Valley Meat Company and said it expected to issue permits next week for Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and Responsible Transportation in Iowa.
The USDA decision has been condemned by animal welfare groups, who have long labelled horse slaughter a cruel and predatory industry.
Valley Meat Company has been pushing to restart the slaughter industry in the US for more than a year, with plans to use a converted cattle-processing facility. The meat will be exported for human consumption.
The company said it would begin final preparations, with plans to hire up to 100 employees in the coming weeks and months to man the plant.
The plant has been involved in litigation with the USDA, accusing it of intentionally delaying a grant of inspections. Friday, June 28, was a deadline set by the court for a response from the USDA in the case.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Front Range Equine Rescue indicated their intention to file suit immediately against the USDA to put a stop to the decision.
The plant’s approval comes on the heels of a push by lawmakers to prevent the slaughter trade getting re-established.
The House and Senate appropriations committees have both passed amendments to the 2014 USDA budget that would prohibit funding for federal inspections, in essence banning horse slaughter in the US.
The Obama Administration and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack have requested that they not be funded.
If the USDA budget in the House and Senate receives a vote, it is expected to pass in both chambers, and the plants would again lose inspectors and be forced to close at the end of October.
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said: “Since Congress has not yet acted to ban horse slaughter inspection, (the agriculture department) is legally required to issue a grant of inspection today to Valley Meats in Roswell, N.M., for equine slaughter.”
“The Administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law.”
Inspections were first defunded in 2007, but all three foreign plants then operating in Illinois and Texas had already been shut by state laws before the courts had decided on challenges to the defunding. Essentially the defunding simply kept the plants from moving to other states.
Funding was restored in 2011 when the House passed a defunding amendment, but the Senate did not.
A four-member conference committee then reinstated the funding by a three to one vote. Since the reinstatement, several plants have requested that they be granted inspections.
The Equine Welfare Alliance, in commenting on Valley Meat Co approval, said it was unclear how soon any of these companies might begin slaughtering horses. Valley Meat Co must still obtain a water discharge permit in order to begin operations, and there is some question about other permits, it said.
The New Mexico Environmental Department is expected to hold a public hearing on the Valley Meats discharge permit within 30 days.
The Humane Society of the United States said the approval for Valley Meat Co meant the federal government could potentially spend millions of taxpayer dollars to start inspections at horse slaughter plants, only to have Congress terminate the process in the coming months.
The society and Front Range Equine Rescue said they planned to file suit immediately against the USDA to put a stop to the decision.
The two groups had previously told the USDA that they would take aggressive legal action against the agency, in light of the serious unresolved environmental and food safety issues surrounding horse slaughter.
The senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the HSUS, Jonathan Lovvorn, said: “The USDA’s decision to start up domestic horse slaughter, while at the same time asking Congress to defund it, is bizarre and unwarranted.
“Slaughter plants have a history of polluting their communities and producing horsemeat that is tainted with a dangerous cocktail of banned drugs. We intend to hold the Obama administration accountable in federal court for this inhumane, wasteful and illegal decision.”
Front Range Equine Rescue president Hilary Wood said: “America’s horses are not raised as food animals, and they receive numerous substances during their lives making them unfit and illegal for human consumption.
“Adding insult to injury, the suffering of the horses in the slaughter pipeline and the danger to humans makes this action more than inhumane.
“Horses bound for slaughter have many alternatives open to them including re-training, re-homing, and humane euthanasia.
“We remain committed to stopping this insult to justice and our sense of justice.”
The groups said the USDA’s approval was particularly surprising, considering the recent scandal in the European Union, where horsemeat was discovered in food products labeled as beef.
The operation of horse slaughter plants in the US will make it more difficult to prevent such cross contamination, they said.
The groups noted there was no system in the US to track medications and veterinary treatments given to horses to ensure that their meat is safe.