Yet another roadblock has been thrown into the path of Valley Meat Company of Roswell, New Mexico.
New Mexico State District Judge Matthew Wilson ruled to extend a temporary order that prohibits the plant from opening and he has set a new hearing in the case for Jan. 13.
The legal action marks the third time in less than a year that a temporary order has prevented the plant from opening its doors.
The latest legal action came in the form of a lawsuit filed by New Mexico State Attorney General Gary King that alleges the plant would violate New Mexico's food safety laws, would result in water quality issues and would violate the state's unfair practice law. That suit was filed Dec. 31 and resulted in the issuance of the third temporary restraining order to block the plant's opening in a five month period.
The planned conversion of the meat processing plant from a beef plant to a facility designed to slaughter horses has been roiled in controversy over the issue of the humanitarian treatment of horses and the question of whether equine should be properly classified as livestock or companion animals.
It has divided ranchers, animal protection groups, and even Indian tribes and has captured the attention and interest of an entire nation.
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The practice of horse slaughtering in the United States ended in 2007 when lawmakers in Texas and Illinois passed laws that closed down horse slaughter facilities in their respective states. It was also the first year that Congress failed to fund United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspections at horse slaughter facilities, effectively preventing the issuance of any new permits for horse slaughter operations.
But in 2012 and again in 2013, those funding limitations failed to be included in the federal budget. Also, a severe drought that limited horse owners’ abilities to feed and water their equine stock, often resulting in abandonment of horses that were left to perish from starvation or fall to predators, resulted in a number of companies in several states filing for a USDA permit.
USDA: "We had little choice"
USDA officials claimed with the reinstatement of funding for inspections they had little choice but to consider those requests. But after several months of no action, Valley Meat Company of Roswell filed suit against the federal agency claiming they were dragging their feet in issuing permits because of "political pressures and the growing opposition to the horse slaughter issue."
That case was settled when USDA issued permits in June to two companies, Valley Meat Company in Roswell and Responsible Transportation Company in Iowa. But in July, a federal lawsuit filed by animal protection groups against the USDA charged the federal agency failed to comply with federal environmental guidelines before issuing the permits, resulted in an Albuquerque federal judge issuing a temporary injunction preventing the plants from opening until the lawsuit could be resolved.
Eventually, after the injunction had been extended, the case was thrown out of court, once again clearing the way for Valley Meat Company to begin horse slaughter operations. The other permit holder, Responsible Transportation in Iowa, surrendered the permit charging the delay in opening and the added cost of the lawsuit forced them to opt for a cattle processing facility instead of a plant to process horses.
Since that time, however, other companies have moved forward to secure permits from USDA.
But in spite of the court throwing out the lawsuit, animal protection groups appealed the court's decision and once again a temporary injunction blocked Valley Meat Company from opening. Eventually the federal appeals court in Denver upheld the lower court's ruling and denied the appeal and lifted the injunction permanently.
Valley Meat Company immediately proceeded with preparations to finally open the plant but, for a third time, legal action was filed, this time as a result of the State of New Mexico's lawsuit, that resulted in a third injunction to block plans to open the Roswell plant.
Blair Dunn, the attorney representing Valley Meat Company, charged last week that the state lacks jurisdiction in the issue and suggested New Mexico State Attorney General Gary King is using the high profile and emotionally-charged case for “political ambitions.” King is a gubernatorial candidate in this year's New Mexico state election.
The issue of horse slaughter has been an emotionally-charged one that has affected opponents and proponents within the horse industry and beyond. Both sides have presented compelling testimony in support of their positions.
Humane or inhumane is the real question
Animal protection groups and many equine enthusiasts effectively argue that horses have long played a historical role in the development of our nation and have long been companion animals that deserve special consideration. They also argue that horse slaughter is a cruel and unjust end for such noble animals and the practice represents abusive treatment by its very nature.
On the other side are horse owners who argue without a horse slaughter option, many equine are abandoned and face starvation or are marshaled into overcrowded trailers and transported vast distances to slaughterhouses in Canada, or moved across the Mexican border where unregulated slaughter facilities eagerly await final disposition of the unwanted animals.
Also of major concern by opponents is the safety of human consumption of horse meat. While the packaging and sale of horse meat for human consumption is prohibited by law in the United States, opponents to horse slaughtering argue that the meat can be shipped to international destinations where horse meat consumption is legal, and that because of routine medications administered to American equine and the inability to detect many of these harmful substances, the practice of selling horse meat for consumption anywhere in the world should not be allowed.
Many proponents of horse slaughtering argue, and are supported by USDA and Federal Drug administration (FDA) researchers, that proper meat inspections can detect harmful substances in horse meat and that meat allowed to be shipped to foreign buyers is safe for human consumption.
Regardless which side is right and which is wrong, the issue of horse slaughtering remains a highly charged topic and continues to electrify emotions on both sides of the issue.