Whether a New Mexico slaughterhouse will be allowed to open and begin processing horses for slaughter should be decided no later than late October according to a federal judge in Albuquerque.

Judge Christina Armijo told reporters this week she will make that decision by the end of next month after she placed the case on an expedited schedule on Tuesday.

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Attorneys for both the Humane Society of the United States and other plaintiffs, and an attorney representing Valley Meat Company of Roswell, have been instructed to file briefs in the days and weeks ahead in order to facilitate a timely decision "in the coming weeks."

Armijo placed a restraining order on Valley Meat Company of New Mexico and Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, last month preventing the two processing plants from commencing horse slaughter operations even though USDA had issued them permits in June.

HSUS a plaintiff

A lawsuit filed in early July by a number of groups and individuals opposing horse slaughter in the U.S. claimed those permits were issued without meeting federal environmental requirements.

Plaintiffs in the case also include the animal welfare group Front Range Equine Rescue of New Mexico; another animal protection foundation formed by actor Robert Redford and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; and a Native American tribe among others. The lawsuit actually represents legal action filed against USDA's decision to issue the permits and challenges whether those permits are valid because issuing them failed to meet federal environmental assessment requirements.

Armijo granted the restraining order, but ordered plaintiffs and defendants to appear before a federal magistrate charged with determining the amount of a cash bond the animal welfare groups would need to post to cover the costs of delayed start up operations for the companies if the court should finally rule USDA did not issue the permits improperly and the plants should have been allowed to open.

A week later, Federal Magistrate Robert Scott ordered the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue and the other plaintiffs to post a bond of no less than $460,000 to cover the potential losses of the two companies for the first month of delayed opening, and further set additional hearings-- one per month--to determine the amount of incremental cash bonds that would be required each month until the court finds a resolution in the case.

The welfare groups posted the bond but their attorneys filed additional motions, including the motion to expedite the case in hopes of bringing the lawsuit to a settlement as quickly as possible.

Iowa firm withdraws

Since the lawsuit was filed, one of the meat companies, Responsible Transportation of Iowa, withdrew plans to open a horse slaughterhouse citing legal delays that were costing them too much money. They instead have applied for a permit to operate a cattle slaughterhouse.

With Arimijo's move this week, attorneys for both sides say they are pleased the court will push the case forward as much as possible and both agree they are anxious for the case to reach a conclusion.

The lawsuit represents the crowning moment in an issue of horse slaughtering on U.S. soil and to further determine whether exporting horse meat is a safe practice. Plaintiffs in the case argue the large number of drugs that are routinely administered to horses throughout their life make horse meat unfit for human consumption. Federal law does not allow for commercial packing of horse meat for consumption in the U.S., but in at least eight foreign countries, the consumption of horse meat is legal and common.

In 2007, legal horse slaughtering and the export of horse meat came to a halt after Congress failed to budget horse meat inspections by USDA. But congressional action in 2011 restored funding for inspections, prompting a number of slaughterhouses to request permits. USDA issued the permits in June saying they had no legal reason to deny those permits based upon current law.

The issue has sparked an emotional national debate about how to deal with the large number of abandoned or unwanted horses all across the country. It has divided animal welfare groups, ranchers, Indian tribes, horse owners and others.

While many claim horse slaughter operations are cruel and provide a product for human consumption that is both unsafe and environmentally unfriendly, others say transporting horses great distances to unregulated slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada fails to offer a better solution to the growing problem of abandoned or unwanted horses.

More articles of interest on Southwest Farm Press:

Horse slaughter issue by the numbers: PART II

Horse slaughter issue divides and confuses: PART I

Magistrate orders bond in horse slaughter case

Federal court halts slaughterhouse openings