WASHINGTON—A New Mexico business has overcome a major obstacle to slaughtering horses for meat that could be consumed by humans in a case that will face a legal challenge from groups including the Humane Society of the United States.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Friday issued a "Grant of Inspection" to Valley Meat Company LLC to process the animals at its facility in Roswell, N.M. Two other businesses in Iowa and Missouri are expected to receive approvals early next week.
"Valley Meat Company is encouraged that after well over a year of delay that the process has finally reached completion," the company said in a statement. "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 and legally compliant product to the world markets."
A. Blair Dunn, an Albuquerque-based attorney representing the business, said the company plans to begin operations around mid-July. In a letter sent today to Valley Meat Co., USDA requested the business inform the agency when it intended to commence horse slaughtering operations so it could schedule an inspector.
The "Conditional Grant of Inspection" would be granted for no more than 90 days from the date upon which Valley Meat Co. begins operations, wrote a USDA official, Jennifer Beasley-McKean.
"During this 90-day period your establishment must validate its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Plan and prepare and maintain written procedures for the recall of meat food products produced and shipped by the establishment", she stated. Once the plan and procedures have been validated, USDA will grant inspection in accordance with federal regulations, she said.
In fiscal year 2006, Congress barred the use of funds for ante-mortem inspection of horses that were intended to be slaughtered for human consumption. The appropriations legislation effectively put an end to horse slaughter since USDA didn't have funds to carry out its inspection duties.
The ban was lifted in fiscal year 2012. Last year, Valley Meat Co. filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against USDA officials for failing to provide inspections for horses that were intended for human consumption.
Valley Meat Co. declared it satisfied requirements under federal law for a "Grant of Inspection." However, "it became the stance of USDA responding again to political pressure instead of science and the directives of Congress that because horses had not been slaughtered for a number of years that FSIS would have to create new protocols for evaluating drug residue testing programs," the lawsuit alleged.
USDA today moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the lawsuit was "moot" since FSIS granted Valley Meat Co.'s application.
The Obama Administration has asked Congress to reinstate a ban on horse slaughter. Lawmakers haven't done so, although the appropriations committees in the House and Senate have voted to eliminate funds for inspection of horse slaughter facilities.
"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," a USDA spokesperson said. "Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), FSIS must issue a grant of inspection once an establishment has satisfied all federal requirements as this plant has done. FSIS anticipates two additional applications for equine inspection will meet the mandated requirements in the coming days."
The horse slaughter applications have ignited debates over whether an icon of the American West should be processed for human consumption and whether horse meat is safe given the large number of veterinary drugs the animals receive during their life.
At least two organizations—the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Front Range Equine Rescue—previously stated their intent to file lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Clean Water if USDA granted approval to Valley Meat Co. or other businesses to slaughter horses. Bruce Wagman, a lawyer representing HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue, on Friday said the groups would challenge USDA's decision in court.
"We are deeply disappointed by USDA’s unnecessary and illegal grant of inspection to Valley Meat, which has demonstrated its inability to comply with environmental or humane handling laws for years, and which still does not have the requisite permits from state agencies to operate its facility," he said in an emailed statement. "The agency and the company together continue to ignore the dangerous nature of horse meat, and apparently does not care that its consumers could suffer serious consequences. Additionally, since horse meat is deemed adulterated under New Mexico law, the meat cannot be sold or transferred within the state."
Dunn, Valley Meat Co.'s lawyer, said he was not surprised that HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue planned to challenge USDA's decision.
"It's what they do," he said.
Although the slaughter of horses is considered by at least some groups as inhumane, others maintain it represents a sensible alternative for many equines who are abandoned, neglected or otherwise unwanted by their owners. According to Iowa-based Responsible Transportation LLC, whose application to slaughter equines is pending before USDA, up to 100,000 horses are "unwanted" each year. The company says it will receive such horses at no cost to the owner.
"Horses are currently shipped to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered where the USDA has no jurisdiction," the company states on its website. "Responsible Transportation utilizes trained professionals and USDA approved processes and facilities to ensure the horses receive ethical treatment."