The argument on whether processing horses through a meat processing facility is lawful in the United States or whether the practice is inhumane or possibly even a threat to human health heated up last week as a new chapter unfolded in the ongoing fight to prevent a Roswell, New Mexico, slaughterhouse from beginning operations in the immediate future.

Valley Meat Company is now facing a new challenge after USDA is considering whether the company is required to have a federal permit to discharge waste water under the federal Clean Water Act.

An attorney for the company claims this latest roadblock to opening the former cattle processing plant's as a horse slaughterhouse is an attempt by the Obama administration to put "politics over policy" and one more attempt in a steady stream of roadblocks designed to keep the company from lawfully operating. 

Blair Dunn, the attorney who represents Valley Meat Company, has long charged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) of dragging its feet and even changing the rules to slow the process of obtaining federal permission to operate the facility as a horse slaughterhouse because of political pressure from animal activist groups and politicians who categorically are opposed to the practice.

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The company's application to resume domestic horse slaughter ignited a national debate last year over whether horses are to be considered livestock or domestic companions. If approved, the company plans to process horse meat for distribution to foreign buyers in countries that allow human consumption of horse meat and also to buyers who provide meat orders to zoo operations.

Dunn says this latest attempt to delay the plant's opening citing a need for permits to discharge waste that potentially violates the Clean Water Act is nothing more than a ploy introduced by opponents to the slaughtering of horses. He charges the White House is playing politics and pressuring USDA to delay final action that would authorize the company to begin horse slaughter operations.

Dunn says the plant doesn't discharge any waste into water, and such a permit was never needed during the 20 years the plant was slaughtering cattle.

“If these were not requirements for a cattle facility, they cannot now suddenly become requirements for a horse facility,” Dunn said in an email to David Glass, who is one of the attorneys representing the USDA against a lawsuit by Valley Meat over delays in approving its application.

Drought caused plant to stop cattle operations

Plant owner Rick de la Santos claims that his small cattle processing plant was forced to reorganize after severe drought conditions over the last two years caused most ranchers in New Mexico to cull herds, which created a shortage of cattle to process through his facility and at the same time created a serious problem for horse owners who found it difficult to find or afford forage and feed for their animals, often resulting in horses being abandoned and in many cases left to die.

But the issue of whether the slaughtering of horses was inhumane or not divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups as well as ranchers, politicians and even American Indian tribes who were faced with having to deal with horse overpopulation and the growing problem of horse abandonment in drought stressed regions of the nation.

Texas and Illinois are the only two states that outlawed the slaughter of horses for human consumption, but when Congress eliminated funding for USDA horse meat and plant inspections back in 2006, it effectively closed down equine slaughterhouse operations in every state because the meat could not be shipped out of state. The last horse slaughterhouse in the country closed in 2007. But in November last year President Obama signed a bill that authorized the return of USDA inspections of horse meat and plants, clearing the way for horse slaughterhouse operations in states other than Texas and Illinois.

Dunn quickly filed applications with USDA for a plant inspection that would clear the way for Valley Meat Company to resume operations and a request asking for federal inspectors to begin regular inspections of operations at the planned horse slaughterhouse. But after weeks of waiting for USDA approval, the company finally filed a lawsuit against USDA charging they were intentionally slowing the permit process because of political opposition at both the state and federal level.

In May, however, it looked like USDA had finally cleared the way for horse meat inspections to continue, which quickly prompted at least two other companies, one in Oklahoma and the other in Wyoming, to express interest in horse slaughter operations.

Oklahoma lawmakers effectively approved horse slaughter operations with recent legislation that authorizes horse meat inspections within the state. Many say the bill was drafted not so much in support of horse slaughtering but in support of livestock producers who fear if animal rights groups get their way on this issue, they might be able to champion further animal rights legislation that could interfere with the state’s livestock or poultry industries.

Meanwhile, at least two Wyoming groups are reportedly considering opening horse slaughterhouse operations. Wyoming State Rep. Sue Wallis is a member of the United Horsemen and says her group formed the company Unified Equine to explore the creation of at least one horse meat processing plant in her state.

Wallis and United Horsemen, as well as other pro-slaughter groups, recently pushed Congress to allow USDA inspections of horse slaughterhouses.

International support of horse meat consumption

While recent problems in Europe over whether horse meat was mixed with other types of meat or was substituted for beef without consumer's awareness prompted widespread outcry over the issue, there remains strong support for horse meat consumption in some regions of the world.

While human consumption of horse meat in the U.S. is not legal, it is a major food staple in eight countries around the world with China, Mexico and Kazakhstan at the top of the list. Worldwide the horse meat industry provides about 4.7 million horses a year for human consumption.

Proponents to horse slaughtering operations point out that when Congress removed USDA funding for horse meat inspections in 2007, which virtually shutdown horse meat processing operations in the United States, it prompted a significant increase in the number of horses being shipped to Mexico where horse slaughtering and processing is lawful. They argue that practice often resulted in a greater degree of cruelty to horses, in part because of overcrowded shipping conditions and also because of inhumane methods of destroying the animals in Mexican processing plants.

While there appears to be a major disagreement on the total number of U.S. horses shipped to Mexico and destroyed, some argue that number runs well into the hundreds of thousands of animals each year.

Regardless of whether processing horse meat is conducted on U.S. or foreign soil, the issue of whether it is a humane practice continues to grow.

Overall, an estimated 200 agricultural and horse breeding organizations originally opposed the proposed ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. and over 300 animal welfare organizations, horse trade groups, prominent horse owners, and corporate leaders supported the ban, illustrating the degree of controversy over the issue.

 

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