A Roswell, New Mexico, meat company has filed suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over a lack of action on a request for inspections that would clear the way for the company to resume domestic horse slaughterhouse operations in an effort to revitalize horse meat food services to foreign buyers.

Company owner Rick del los Santos says the company is still waiting for federal action though the lawsuit was filed last October. Federal court officials say the USDA has until January to respond to the request but confirm they will continue to process the lawsuit in the interim.

Valley Meat Company is suing the federal government, alleging USDA inaction on its application has cost the company “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in recent months. The company has also filed suit against advocates for the humane treatment of animals, who he claims defamed his business during what he termed “an expensive, yearlong fight” over his proposal. That suit names the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico as plaintiffs.

If the USDA approves the request, or if the court forces the fed agency to take action, it could result in clearing the way for the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse operation in more than five years.

At stake, perhaps, is the lingering issue of whether horses, that some refer to as noble creatures that helped tame the American West, are pets or should be considered livestock, much the same as cattle or sheep.

The company says they made the decision to apply for permits to resume slaughter of horses for food after the severe drought greatly reduced their earnings as a cattle processing plant. Ranchers all across the Southwest and other drought-stricken areas of the nation culled cattle herds as a result of extreme water and forage shortages over the last two years.

The dispute, which began over a year ago after Congress removed what effectively had become a ban on horse slaughter in the U.S., has caused what the company calls a financial hardship that threatens the company to lay off workers or even close its operation. De los Santos says when his cattle slaughter business dropped off as a result of the drought, he decided to talk to USDA about converting his slaughterhouse to handle horses.

He says USDA initially seemed to encourage his application, but warned him he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to get the proper permits. The owner claims he stopped all cattle operations and shuttered the plant in anticipation of re-opening as a horse slaughter facility, but claims publicity about his plans influenced federal authorities who then “stonewalled” his efforts to get the required permits.

In addition to opposition to the horse slaughterhouse operation by animal activists, de los Santos claims New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez vowed to oppose it, and a combination of political pressure and public outcry stymied USDA’s willingness to respond to his application, creating a financial holocaust for the company.

In spite of outspoken opposition to his request to resume horse slaughter operations, other groups, including some horse rescues agencies, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter according to de los Santos. He claims a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter when it denied funds to USDA for inspection purposes back in 2006.

But a bill passed last year authorized the USDA to resume horse slaughterhouse inspections, which de los Santos says prompted his decision to apply for inspections, especially in view of reduced cattle operations. He also claims the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, and that a return to horse slaughter for food would be more humane than the existing policies of the horse-for-food industry in North America, especially in Mexico.