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Iowa Watchdog

Horse slaughter plant debate divides New Mexico

7/24/2013

EQUINE QUARREL: The first horse processing plant in the U.S. in seven years is scheduled to open Aug. 5 but opponents want a federal judge to intervene.

EQUINE QUARREL: The first horse processing plant in the U.S. in seven years is scheduled to open Aug. 5 but opponents want a federal judge to intervene.

SANTA FE – A battle over the first horse meat processing plant in the United States in seven years is heating up, with a court hearing in Albuquerque fast approaching.

The Roswell facility is scheduled to open in two weeks, but on Monday New Mexico Attorney General Gary King joined a lawsuit trying to stop the slaughterhouse from opening its doors — something a lawyer for the plant dismissed as “political grandstanding.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted approval to the Valley Meat Co. to convert its cattle facility into a horse processing plant, prompting a number of animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, to seek a federal court injunction to keep the plant from opening.

King filed a motion Friday saying the state wants to ensure that “commercial operations within its borders are conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.” Last month in a legal analysis, King said “state law does not allow for production of meat that is chemically tainted under federal regulations.”

Opponents claim the meat may contain chemicals that could harm people who eat it.

“Legally, the AG’s office is in left field,” Blair Dunn, attorney for Valley Meat Co., told New Mexico Watchdog on Monday. “It’s just not the threat he’s purporting it to be. This is a publicity stunt. It has to do with run for governor. Coming from his agricultural background, he should know better…There is not an issue with food safety.”

A spokesman for King said he had no comment about Dunn’s remarks, but in a news release King cited a study from the Food and Drug Administration that “indicates a serious gap in food safety and constitutes a significant public health risk.”

The New Mexico Environment Department added another roadblock for Valley Meat Co. by declining a request to renew the firm’s wastewater discharge permit.

The NMED said it won’t renew the permit without a public hearing, noting it has received more than 450 comments against letting the former cattle slaughterhouse open as a horse slaughter plant. Dunn fired back, saying the agency was unfairly targeting a small family-owned business. He said the plant can still open, but will have to haul its waste.

The processing plant has ignited passions and divided ranchers, farmers, animal lovers and everyday citizens in New Mexico.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has opposed it, saying that “horses are a part of our culture.”

On Monday, former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, along with actor Robert Redford, announced the formation of a nonprofit that is joining the lawsuit against the facility. Richardson said he’d do “whatever it takes to stop the return of horse slaughterhouses in this country and, in particular, my own state.”

Supporters of the plant say that given the rising cost of hay, horses have been abandoned and left to starve in the Southwest and maintain it’s better to have unwanted and dying horses killed in a federally-inspected facility than have them sent to plants in places like Mexico, where they often meet gruesome deaths in unsanitary conditions.

“Which would you rather do, put them down in a humane fashion or let them starve to death?” Dunn asked.

“Horse slaughter has no place in our culture,” Redford said in a statement. “It is cruel, inhumane and perpetuates abuse and neglect of these beloved animals.”

The plant is scheduled to open Aug. 5, but the hearing in federal court about the injunction is set for Aug. 2 in Albuquerque before Judge M. Christina Armijo.

Since giving the Roswell plant the OK, the USDA also recently granted approval for a horse slaughter facility in Iowa and is poised to approve one in Missouri.

Dunn says he’ll ask for $25 million at the Aug. 2 hearing, as bond “to cover potential lost revenue” to the facilities should they be delayed in opening for business.

How did the situation arise?

Back in 2006, a prohibition was placed in the U.S. preventing horse slaughter, and the last plant closed in 2007. But in 2011, Congress quietly removed the rider enforcing the ban from an omnibus spending act.

Attorneys for Valley Meat took the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service to court and forced their hand. Earlier this year, the USDA said it “is legally required to issue a grant of inspection” even though the Obama administration has also come out against lifting the ban.

“Until Congress acts, the department must continue to comply with current law,” USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe told Associated Press June 28.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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