What some are calling a surprise move, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted a request by Valley Meat Company in Roswell, N.M., to convert its former cattle processing facility into a horse slaughterhouse, just hours after a U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to withhold funding for horse meat inspections, adding fuel to an already controversial issue.

The USDA was named in a lawsuit filed by Valley Meat Company owner Rick de la Santos last year over what he termed intentional delays and a lack of action by the federal agency over a request for inspection of the converted cattle processing facility, which would have cleared the way for the plant's reopening. But the U.S. Justice Department moved Friday to dismiss the case, leading the meat company's legal counsel, Blair Dunn, to say he would do everything possible to keep the lawsuit active until issues like legal fees could be resolved.

While horse meat consumption in the U.S. is prohibited, the plant's owner says he intends to export the processed meat to countries like Mexico and Russia where it is legal. But the ongoing issue of whether horses are livestock or companion animals has sparked a nationwide debate that has divided even equine support organizations and horse owners.

Leading the opposition are the Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue, two of the major groups that argue horses are pets and should not be inhumanely slaughtered as food animals.

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But groups on the other side of the issue argue that when Congress failed to provide funding for horse meat inspections in 2006, it created an environment for inhumane treatment of horses which are often marshaled into overcrowded tractor trailers for shipment over long distances to Mexico and Canada for slaughter, resulting in animal deaths in transit and slaughter practices that are largely unregulated and even cruel.