Valley Meat Co. sits at a bend on a quiet road surrounded by farm and ranchland near Roswell. The picturesque location is serene as most New Mexico wide-open spaces.
But outside the gates that contain a metal building and empty wooden livestock stalls waits an unforgiving and sometimes brutal opposition to owner Rick De Los Santos’ plans to begin operating as the U.S.’s first horse slaughterhouse in five years.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector walked the facility with De Los Santos Tuesday, assuring him that the plant was in compliance.
The inspection ended a yearlong wait and paved the way for a possible opening within the next week.
“It’s a relief in some way,” De Los Santos said. “He found everything to be in compliance — our paperwork, our facility. He was going back to the Dallas district office to file for the grant of inspection. So it’s great news really.”
Following nearly a year of waiting, a lawsuit against the federal government, death threats and threatening messages from animal activists, Valley Meat Co. may be days away from getting approval from the USDA to begin operations.
A grant of inspection means the facility will allow the 7,200-square-foot plant join the more than 6,270 plants in the U.S. to be regularly inspected to process meat for human consumption.
But several steps need to be taken before operations can begin with 50 to 100 horses processed a day.
“Legally (the plant) will be allowed to start processing,” said Blair Dunn, attorney for De Los Santos. “There will be an inspector there every day the plant is open and operating.”
But even if the USDA signs off on allowing the inspectors into the plant, Valley Meat Co. is already facing a tough battle to operate, including another federal lawsuit and a possible shut-down of inspections in September if President Barack Obama’s budget is approved.
An “Intent to Sue” notice was filed against several federal agencies last week and spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States that cites endangered species violations may stop plans and could take down neighboring dairy operations as collateral damage.
“We’re anticipating these groups are going to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction or something along those lines,” Dunn said. If that happens, “we’re going to be headed to court. If they don’t file anything, Valley Meat will begin processing next week.”
A lawsuit was filed by the law firm of Schiff Hardin in San Francisco against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, USDA and secretary of the interior on behalf of Front Range Equine Rescue and the Humane Society of the U.S. citing violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Valley Meat, on Cedarvale Road, apparently may be a threat to the environment and wildlife in the area by producing runoff into nearby streams and cause air pollution, the groups claim. Located near South Spring River, Pecos River, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Bottomless Lakes State Park, threatened and endangered species are found, including the Pecos bluntnose shiner, the Least tern, the Pecos Assiminea snail, Koster’s springsnail, Roswell springsnail and Noel’s amphipod, according to the legal filing.
The Department of Justice has 60 days to answer the complaint if a suit is filed.
Schiff Hardin’s lead lawyer on the case, Bruce Wagman, an animal law litigator, represented the Humane Society in 2007 when the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the Illinois Horse Meat Act, which banned slaughtering horses for human consumption.
Hardin is arguing issues that may affect dairy practices in the area of Valley Meat Co.’s operations, according to Dunn.
“The biggest problem on this (is) that the collateral damage could destroy the dairies and other agriculture all around,” Dunn said.
After the last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007 in Illinois, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the U.S. reportedly warned, if plants reopen, “you’ll see controversy, litigation, legislative action, and basically a very inhospitable environment to operate.”
De Los Santos has already dealt with a fair share of threats and personal attacks in the past year, but has not waivered in his plan. As a 35-year veteran of meat processing, he said he has never had any issues with the business.
“We’ve been in business at this facility for 22 years,” he said. “I’ve never had a meat recall. I’ve never had any issues with our product that I know of. So, it’s definitely something that we’re used to doing and I think we could do a good job slaughtering horses also.”
De Los Santos has not lost faith in people either, even after what he has endured in the past year.
“I believe in people. People want to get their opinion across and I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. I don’t think there’s a need to get ugly and nasty with it and threatening my family and my wife. I think the ones making those threats aren’t even from New Mexico.”
Once allowed to operate, De Los Santos has already found a company who owns horses that will be picked up, taken to Valley Meat Co.’s facility, processed and packaged, and picked up.
“All we’re doing is supplying the facility and supplying the labor to process their horses,” he said. “We’ve definitely done some work to get this set up.”
The horse meat will be sold to customers outside the U.S.
Even so, De Los Santos expects threats and protests to pick up once the plant receives approval, but he’s ready for it.
The Chaves County Sheriff’s Office has already looked into past threats and is waiting to deal with future ones.
“We don’t really want this monkey on our back,” said Chaves County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Britt Snyder. “We don’t know what to expect.”
The sheriff’s office has been alerted to several threatening phone calls, emails and voicemails received by De Los Santos. Some threats were investigated, Snyder said.
The sheriff’s office will consider each threat if and when they are received or protests arise when the plant opens for operation.
De Los Santos already has planned for extra protection.
Any protestors at the plant must stay off private property, which will be difficult as the only public land surrounding the plant is a roadway. And protestors are not allowed on a public roadway.
“The only rules would be that (protestors) have to stay off (De Los Santos’) property and they can’t block the road,” Snyder said.
Humane groups and politicians including Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King strongly oppose the plant. They argue that horses are iconic animals in the West, and that other solutions and more funding for horse rescue and birth control programs should be explored over slaughter.
Still others are pushing for a return to domestic slaughter. Proponents include several Native American tribes, the American Quarter Horse Association, some livestock associations and even a few horse rescue groups that believe domestic slaughter would be more humane than shipping the animals elsewhere.
They point to a 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found horse abuse and abandonment increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006. Because rescue groups can’t take care of all of the horses in need, tens of thousands have been shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
In this mostly agricultural town, touted on its welcome sign as the Dairy Capital of the Southwest, there is surprisingly little uproar over the plant.
“I was against it,” said Larry Connolly, a retiree having coffee at Starbucks last week. “Then I started talking to some ranchers. They said they were for it. So I’m neutral.”
Local horse trader and former rancher Dave McIntosh said opening the plant would be the “best thing for the welfare of horses.”
—The Associated Press contributed to this report