Lester Castro Frielander, left, a veterinarian from Wyalusing, Penn., stands with fellow protesters outside of Valley Meat Co. near Roswell, Monday. (Jill McLaughlin Photo)
A small but determined group of five protesters in a mini, gas-efficient car called a press conference Monday in front of Valley Meat Co. near Roswell to voice objections to the plant’s intention to be the nation’s first horse slaughterhouse.
Valley Meat’s owner Rick De Los Santos apparently continues to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant of inspection approval following a successful walk-through permit inspection in late April.
The plant on Cedarvale Road remained shuttered as the group stood outside.
“There is a health issue involved in horse meat because the FDA said in the past horses are companion animals,” said veterinarian Lester Castro Friedlander of Wyalusing, Penn. “There are legal and health issues for humans. These are important issues.”
Friedlander was joined by Betty Pritchard and Patience O’Dowd of the Wild Horse Observers Association of New Mexico as well as two others who sat it out inside the car.
Friedlander said he flew out to New Mexico specifically to educate the public about the dangers of horse meat consumption, including the health risks due to high levels of drugs given to horses, the failure of the USDA to ensure the federal humane slaughter act is met, and his opposition to the way horses might be transported.
“I’d like to educate the public in New Mexico,” Friedlander said. “These are the issues that are concerning. You’ve got to be a little responsible.”
De Los Santos and his attorney could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. But both have commented in the past that the plant will accommodate best practices and comply with all federal USDA requirements. De Los Santos reportedly has fitted the plant with special equipment to go above and beyond requirements. If approved for operation, a federal inspector would be present on site at all times.
Valley Meat has become a beacon in an ever-growing national debate over whether the U.S. should allow horses to be slaughtered for human consumption abroad.
The practice is legal but the USDA – the federal agency in charge of restarting the process after a five-year hiatus – continues to stall at the finish line.
De Los Santos and his wife have endured more than a year of waiting, filing federal lawsuits and enduring death threats, delays and increasing costs.
Following the long-awaited USDA walk-through April 23, De Los Santos expected to begin operating the 7,200-square-foot plant within a week. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced publicly a week later that the permission for the plant to open was expected “soon” and the department was working to make sure the process to open Valley Meat was done properly.
By May 2, De Los Santos’ lawyer, A. Blair Dunn, told the Record that the grant of inspection had been delayed by the Department of Justice and the USDA.
“They have relayed that they are having environmental, (National Environmental Policy Act) and (Clean Water Act) DOJ attorneys review the application in anticipation of the litigation that is likely going to be filed by animal rights activists groups,” Dunn wrote in a statement to the Record.
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 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.
The Department of Justice has 60 days to answer the complaint if a suit is filed.