Roswell-area Valley Meat Co.’s epic fight to attain federal approval to open the nation’s first horse slaughterhouse after a seven-year ban has ended, the plant announced Friday.
USDA’s move may allow the plant to open in early July, but the threat of legal action by national animal rights activist groups could delay plans.
The plant’s owner, Rick De Los Santos, will begin final preparation to open and hire 40 to 100 employees over the next few weeks and months, said attorney A. Blair Dunn.
“What we would really like to do is go to work, so it’s good to finally at least get the grant of inspection,” Dunn said.
USDA’s grant of inspection for Valley Meat ended a nearly 15-month permitting logjam and legal struggle for the plant.
The 7,200-square-foot plant proposes to accept horses from a third party, process the meat and deliver the resulting products to another company to be shipped abroad.
Beyond delays by the USDA, Valley Meat’s plans have sparked a national outcry from animal rights activists and public officials threatening legal and political action for months. Legal troubles and federal delays may not be over, Dunn suspects.
“Even though the USDA has issued a grant of inspection, until an inspector actually shows up at the plant, we don’t really trust they are going to now fulfill their word,” Dunn said. “There are plenty of national organizations that are threatening to file lawsuits against the USDA to prevent them from providing inspectors. Chances are that hopefully the plant will be opening in July, but there will be quite a bit of discussions and litigations.”
The final federal approval does not fully resolve pending litigation between Valley Meat and the USDA given the agency’s unjustifiable failures to comply with law for more than 14 months, Dunn said.
“Valley intends to continue to pursue the case in controversy with regard to holding USDA accountable for its unacceptable politically motivated behavior,” Dunn said.
Local and state reaction to the announcement varied.
Chaves County Commissioner Smiley Whooton, a longtime local business owner, said the county supported Valley Meat.
The company, a former cattle-processing plant for 22 years, did not need to undergo a change in county permitting or zoning. Chaves County does not distinguish between one animal or another in slaughterhouse operations.
“The county is 100 percent behind it and the commissioners are 100 percent behind it,” Whooton said. “I feel pretty strong about that. We’re all about economic development in the county and if that’s stimulating our economy and putting our citizens to work, that’s a good thing for the county.”
Gov. Susana Martinez said Friday a horse’s companionship is a way of life for many people across New Mexico.
“We rely on them for work and bond with them through their loyalty,” Martinez said. “Despite the federal government’s decision to legalize horse slaughter for human consumption, I believe creating a horse slaughter industry in New Mexico is wrong and I am strongly opposed.”
New Mexicans’ affinity for horses remains an integral part of who we are, Martinez wrote in a letter to the USDA opposing Valley Meat’s plans in April, citing the state’s agricultural industry generates $3 million annually and directly, supporting more than 23,000 jobs.
State Attorney General Gary King, a vocal opponent, told the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that his office is concerned that the plant won’t meet state Food Act requirements.
“The plant will also likely be required to meet state environmental standards for their discharges,” King said.
The ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute and Animal Protection of New Mexico were “dismayed” over the USDA’s decision.
The Humane Society of the United States again threatened to immediately file suit against the USDA to stop inspectors from entering the plant, calling the approval bizarre and unwarranted.
“The (HSUS) and Front Range Equine Rescue plan to file suit immediately against the USDA to put a stop to this agency decision,” according to the HSUS press release.
“Slaughter plants have a history of polluting their communities. We intend to hold the Obama administration accountable in federal court for this inhumane, wasteful and illegal decision.”
HSUS spokeswoman Stephanie Twining was unable to say what its lawsuits might include. The Society’s legal team did not return a request for comment. Twining said the Society was not anti-animal agriculture and did not intend to use fear tactics in its press release.
HSUS and Front Line Equine have already filed an Intent to Sue notice against several federal agencies, citing several endangered species violations should the plant, on Cedarvale Road, open for business.
Proponents to U.S. horse slaughter plants in April include several Native American tribes, the American Quarter Horse Association, some livestock associations and a few horse rescue groups that believe domestic slaughter would be more humane than shipping the animals elsewhere.
They pointed to a 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found horse abuse and abandonment increasing since Congress effectively banned the practice in 2006. Tens of thousands of U.S. horses are shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico, tripling the number since the ban.
The USDA told the Associated Press it also expects to issue permits next week for Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and Responsible Transportation in Iowa.
Meanwhile, the USDA continues to push for an outright ban on horse slaughter and the Obama administration’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year proposes to eliminate funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses. Both the House and Senate agriculture committees have endorsed proposals to cut funding. The appropriations bill may not pass this year.