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Published July 08, 2013, 11:30 AM

Horse slaughter plant progresses

A plant in New Mexico that plans to slaughter horses to produce meat for human consumption moved a step closer to operation June 28 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would provide legally required inspection services.

By: Stephanie Strom, New York Times News Service

A plant in New Mexico that plans to slaughter horses to produce meat for human consumption moved a step closer to operation June 28 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would provide legally required inspection services.

Courtney Rowe, a USDA spokeswoman, says it was likely to grant inspection services to two more plants “in the coming days.” USDA did not name them but says it has applications from facilities in Iowa and Missouri.

Although the plant, owned by Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., still has hurdles to overcome in the state, it is on track to become the first U.S. operation permitted to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice six years ago.

Rowe says the department had determined that the company met all of the requirements of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

The Obama administration has asked Congress to reinstate a ban on horse slaughtering in the United States. The House and Senate appropriations committees have approved similar amendments that would deny government financing for horse slaughter.

But “until Congress acts, the department must continue to comply with current law,” Rowe adds.

In a statement, Valley Meat says it was “encouraged that after well over a year of delay that the process has finally reached completion.”

It says it plans to hire as many as 100 employees to work in the plant.

Opponents of horse slaughter say the federal government had options that would have allowed it to withhold inspection. They say USDA had agreed to provide inspection services to put an end to a lawsuit filed by Valley Meat.

“This looks like a strange obedience to a Hail Mary lawsuit filed by the company,” says Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.

Valley Meat says, however, that it would continue to press the lawsuit.

“Given the unjustifiable failures of USDA to comply with the law for a period extending well over 14 months, Valley Meat intends to continue to pursue the case,” the company says.

A coalition of animal protection groups is asking a federal court in northern California to block the revival of domestic horse slaughter at commercial processing plants.

A lawsuit filed July 1 by the Humane Society of the United States, four other groups and five individuals seeks an emergency injunction to overturn USDA’s approval for the plant.

The Humane Society’s lawsuit names prospective processing plants in Gallatin and Rockville, Mo., Woodbury, Tenn., and Washington, Okla.

Horse slaughterhouses last operated in the U.S. in 2007 before Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for plant inspections.

Health hazards

Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Gary K. King, the state’s attorney general, have opposed horse slaughtering, in part because of animal welfare issues, but also because of potential hazards to humans. Horses are routinely injected with veterinary drugs by owners who never expect them to be eaten.

The Humane Society maintains a list of more than 100 drugs administered to horses, some of which carry labels stating they are not to be used in horses intended for human consumption. Bruce A. Wagman, a lawyer for Front Range Equine Rescue, a group opposing horse slaughter, says those drugs also posed an environmental hazard that USDA is ignoring.

“The offal and waste byproducts produced by horse slaughter is put into lagoons where those drugs and other contaminants can leach out into streams and ground water,” Wagman says.

Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for King, says Valley Meat still faced hurdles to resuming operations there. The plant was shut in 2007, after Congress effectively banned horse slaughtering. In a recent opinion, King says drugs administered to horses could constitute illegal contamination under New Mexico law.

“As I understand it, their attorney has said they have a testing process ready to go, and that’s a good thing,” Sisneros says. “We’re not going to just take their word for it, so there will be some sort of independent testing that has to be done.”

He says the environmental crime unit in the attorney general’s office would monitor Valley Meat, along with the state’s environment department, which has dealt with the company in the past.

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