Valley Meat Company of Roswell, New Mexico, may be one step closer to slaughtering horses and shipping the meat overseas, according to Blair Dunn, the company’s legal counsel.
Dunn reports USDA inspectors failed to find issues at the processing plant during a long awaited inspection this week, clearing the way for owners of the plant to step up plans to resume slaughter operations at the small processing facility located just outside of Roswell.
Tuesday’s federal inspection represents the latest chapter in the story of Rick De Los Santos who, along with his wife Sarah, owns and has operated Valley Meat Company for over 20 years. Up until it was shuttered over a year ago, the plant for years processed cattle, mostly cows too old to transport long distances to larger processing facilities. But De Los Santos says when the drought caused cattle herds to shrink, it adversely affected his meat processing business and also created a hardship for horse owners who struggled to find and fund feed for their animals, often resulting in horse abandonment. He said he decided it was time to remodel the plant to facilitate the slaughtering of horses for meat that could be sold to foreign buyers.
Human consumption of horse meat is illegal in the United States, but has long been widely accepted in many other countries across Europe and Asia. But when the plant remodeled to facilitate horse slaughter, the owners say that’s “when the fireworks began.”
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Over the last year the owners have been embroiled in litigation over plans to slaughter horses. Protestors have picketed the plant, appealed to state and federal representatives and filed court actions to block the reopening of the plant as a horse slaughterhouse facility. Owners say the controversy surrounding the plant has also resulted in a steady barrage of hate mail and death threats.
“Sometimes it’s scary,” De Los Santos said. “They say ‘We will slit your throat [and] hope you die.’”
The owners say they are constantly receiving phone calls and that death threats have been left on their answering machine almost daily.
Politics blamed for troubles
The plant has become a major political issue in recent months. Animal rights groups call plans to open a horse slaughterhouse inhumane, but other animal activist groups and a number of Roswell area ranchers say a horse slaughterhouse is a better alternative than shipping horses to facilities in Mexico and Canada.
De Los Santos says thousands of horses travel from or through New Mexico every month in route to slaughter facilities across the Mexican border, and he claims horses that are processed through his plant will receive more humane treatment than horses sent to foreign processing plants which have fewer regulations protecting animal rights.
He says that in addition to animal rights issues, reopening of the Roswell plant will help the local economy by providing jobs that were taken away when the plant closed last year. He voluntarily shuttered the plant as a direct result of a drought-stressed cattle industry, but only after asking USDA about establishing a horse slaughter facility in its place. He said he was “encouraged by USDA at the time,” but that changed after public pressure over the issue began to build.
In a lawsuit filed last Oct., the plant owner charged USDA with requiring him to shut down cattle slaughter operations before they would consider approving inspections for the horse slaughter plant. The lawsuit also charged animal protection groups with attempting to destroy his business. They include Animal Protection of New Mexico, Front Range Equine, and the Humane Society of the United States.
But not all animal groups object to horse slaughter. Some groups say they support slaughter operations as a way to humanely destroy abandoned or starving animals, including some horse rescue groups, a livestock association and the American Quarter Horse Association. They point to the escalating number of horses being transported out of the country to foreign slaughterhouses.
According to USDA statistics, 68,429 horses were transported to Mexico and 64,652 were transported to Canada last year compared to 37,884 total horses shipped out of the country in 2006, the same year Congress effectively stopped domestic horse slaughter operations by refusing to fund USDA inspections. Contrary to that move, however, a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office indicates horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since inspections ceased, prompting those that favor horse slaughter to point out that cases of horse cruelty have increased.
In a surprise move, Congress passed a bill last year that authorized horse slaughterhouse inspections, bringing the issue back to the forefront.
In recent weeks a new development has stirred the fires of controversy. A meat company employee, described by some as a buyer for the Roswell plant, shot a horse in front of a group of protestors allegedly to prove that horse meat was safe for human consumption. The employee was fired over the incident, but no charges were officially filed because the employee owned the horse and said he intended to consume the meat.
De Los Santos said while he neither authorized nor approved of the move, said the employee was reacting to harassment by animal rights activists. Those activists were enraged when the video was posted on the Internet. Law enforcement officials in Chaves County say they fear things could get worse as the plant prepares to begin slaughter operations in the near future.
Meat company attorney A. Blair Dunn says he believes all roadblocks to reopening the plant for horse slaughter operations have been removed with USDA’s inspection this week, causing some to believe horse slaughter operations at the facility may soon begin.But a number of New Mexico officials, including Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King say they oppose reopening the plant as a horse slaughter facility and say they plan to make USDA aware of their objections.