Federal officials approve horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal officials cleared the way Friday for a return to domestic horse slaughter, granting a southeastern New Mexico company’s application to convert its cattle facility into a horse processing plant.

In approving Valley Meat Co. plans to produce horse meat, Department of Argriculture officials also indicated they would grant similar permits to companies in Iowa and Missouri as early as next week.

With the action, the Roswell, N.M., company is set to become the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.

The company has been fighting for approval from the Department of Agriculture for more than a year with a request that ignited an emotional debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions.

The decision comes more than six months after Valley Meat Co. sued the USDA, accusing it of intentionally delaying the process because the Obama Administration opposes horse slaughter.

Valley Meat Co. wants to ship horse meat to countries where people cook with it or feed it to animals.

In a statement, the company said it was “encouraged that after well over a year of delay that the process has finally reached completion. Valley will now begin final preparation to hire 40 to 100 employees over the coming weeks and months so that they may go to work providing a humanely harvested, safe, legally compliant product to the world markets.”

Although the USDA granted the company’s certification, it was unclear when it would actually be able to begin slaughtering horses. Valley Meat Co. attorney Blair Dunn said the USDA has to send inspectors to the plant before it can begin operation. The USDA said Valley Meat would have to notify the plant in advance to get inspectors on site.

The plant would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the country since Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections at the plants. Congress reinstated the funding in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.

The USDA said it expects to issue permits next week for Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and Responsible Transportation in Iowa.

Meantime, the USDA continues to push for an outright ban on horse slaughter, and the Obama administration’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would effectively reinstate a prohibition on the industry. Both the House and Senate agriculture committees have endorsed proposals that would cut the funding. But it is unclear when and if an agriculture appropriations bill will pass this year.

“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,” said USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe.

“The Administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law.”

Wild horses rounded up on federal land are supposed to be protected from slaughter under federal law, but advocates contend the rules are not being followed. No such safeguards exist for animals captured on state, tribal or private land like the roughly 2,500 horses that roam the Virginia Range near Virginia City.

Nationwide, about 38,500 horses are estimated to be running wild in specially designated “management areas” of public land, with about half in Nevada.

The Bureau of Land Management, which is charged with protecting wild horses under a 1971 federal law, has more than 47,000 of the animals in short- or long-term holding facilities after rounding them up over the objections of wild horse advocates.

The agency argues too many of the animals on the public lands damage the environment through overgrazing and depletion of water resources. Advocates argue that the horses are really being rounded up to clear the range for cattle grazing and other private, profit-driven uses of public land.

A return to domestic horse slaughter has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country’s horse overpopulation and what rescue groups have said are a rising number of neglected and starving horses as the West deals with persistent drought.

The Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue said it would follow through on plans to file suit to try to block the resumption of horse slaughter.Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Henry Brean and AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.