USDA will process NM horse slaughter application; asks Congress to "reinstate ban"

Mar 8, 2013

A Roswell, NM, packer looks to have won a high-profile lawsuit against USDA after suing the agency for delaying inspection of the plant’s horse slaughter facilities for over a year.

Although the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has reluctantly agreed to go ahead with processing Valley Meat, Co.’s application for final inspection, it is unlikely that the matter will be laid to rest. In an unprecedented move, USDA has publicly urged Congress to rethink its position on horse slaughter, while the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has made clear they will file suit if Valley Meat’s application to initiate horse slaughter is approved.

According to HSUS Senior Vice President of Litigation Jonathan Lovvorn, the animal rights organization categorically objects to slaughtering horses, maintaining that they are companion animals not regulated for consumption like cattle and pigs, and cannot be slaughtered humanely.

What began in October as a minor legal squabble over FSIS’s repeated delays in approving Valley Meat as the nation’s first horse slaughter facility since 2007 quickly mushroomed into a major court battle when HSUS and Front Range Equine Rescue (FRER) joined the action as intervenors for USDA. Several cattlemen’s organizations and individual parties have followed suit, intervening on behalf of Valley Meat.

Valley Meat’s owners also filed a suit against HSUS, FRER, and Animal Protection of New Mexico on grounds of defamation and causing a loss of income to the business.

The owners of Valley Meat made the decision to switch from slaughtering cattle to horses in 2011 after Congress removed language in the FY2012 agricultural spending bill that since 2007 had stripped USDA of funds for inspecting horse slaughter facilities.

“We thought it was a winwin situation for everyone around until the Humane Society got involved,” said Rick De Los Santos, general manager and co-owner of Valley Meat. De Los Santos added that the shrinking dairy industry around Roswell had led the company to seek out new markets.

Since horse slaughter was effectively banned in the U.S. in 2007, some 130,000 horses have been trucked annually to slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada. When Congress lifted the ban on inspections in late 2011, De Los Santos saw an opportunity. “We’ve got 40 employees here in Roswell, NM, that need a job. We need the work, and so we thought it’ll provide a less stressful trip for these horses,” he added.

To retrofit the plant to accommodate horses, De Los Santos said that he spent over a hundred thousand dollars, and was initially encouraged by USDA.

“The way USDA talked to me,” said De Los Santos, “we thought we’d just … stop doing cattle and move right into slaughtering horses.” But according to De Los Santos, the sentiment did not last. “As we got further down the line, they started to… turn the other way and didn’t want to hear about horse slaughter,” De Los Santos said. “They told us that it had turned into a political game, and that we’d have to wait and see what would happen.”

By early last week, however, it appeared that USDA would have to cave in to legal pressure and process Valley Meat’s application. In a public statement observing that “several companies” had requested inspections for approval as horse processing facilities, USDA indicated that inspections would have to go forward. But in a surprising move that could potentially violate the legal prohibition on agency lobbying, USDA went on to urge Congress to reinstate the ban on inspections, stating, “These companies must still complete necessary technical requirements and FSIS must still complete its inspector training, but at that point, the department will legally have no choice but to go forward with inspections, which is why we urge Congress to reinstate the ban.”

De Los Santos confirmed that he had been contacted by the regional FSIS office in Dallas, TX, on March 5. Final processing of Valley Meat’s application will take 45-60 days to complete.

HSUS expressed dismay at the development in a strongly worded press release that maintained “killing horses for human consumption is inhumane and creates a serious health risk to consumers.”

Because horses in the U.S. are sometimes treated with performance-enhancing or pain-killing drugs, like the popular analgesic phenylbutazone, or “bute,” which is suspected to be carcinogenic to humans, HSUS maintains that slaughtering horses for food creates a major food safety risk. Together with FRER, HSUS has petitioned USDA and FDA to declare horsemeat unsafe for human consumption. The agencies have yet to respond. However, USDA is understood to be developing a residual drug testing protocol.

“Slaughtering horses for human consumption is archaic, inhumane, and unsafe, given the medicine chest of drugs often administered to horses and prohibited for human consumption,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS. “It is astonishing that we may see the resumption of horse slaughter on U.S. soil while Europe is still reeling from a horse meat scandal.”

HSUS and FRER have “announced their intention to file suit” if USDA gives a green light to Valley Meat’s application.

Cattlemen’s organizations will be watching developments closely due to HSUS’s contention that in 2006, a federal district court issued a judgment against USDA stating that an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would have to be performed for horse slaughter to resume legally. According to Karen Budd-Falen, counsel for intervenors R-CALF, New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers’ Association, International Equine Business Association, and others, the prospect of requiring horse processing facilities to clear NEPA presents a slippery slope that could ensnare all livestock processing in perpetual litigation, regardless of the species being slaughtered.

“They’re trying to say that you have to do NEPA compliance to do a final inspection,” said Budd-Falen. “In my mind, that’s the scariest claim that they’re making.”

If the court agrees with HSUS that NEPA is necessary to inspect horse slaughter facilities, Budd-Falen warned that the same argument could easily be recycled to require cattle, pig and chicken slaughter facilities to comply, as well.

The potential for legal gridlock, Falen suggested, was significant.

“Considering that in separate studies we’ve done in terms of NEPA litigation, that is one of the most litigated-over acts by environmental groups out of all the other federal statutes,” Budd-Falen said, “we think the environmental groups will just tie up meat inspections forever.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent,