Separately, the department announced its approval for horse slaughtering at a plant in Iowa, the second facility approved for processing equine meat in less than a week. On Friday, it said it would provide inspection services to the Valley Meat Company in Roswell, N.M., for the same purpose.
Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, and Valley Meat would be the first two plants to process horses since 2007, when Congress effectively banned equine slaughter. The prohibition ended in 2011, and various companies, many backed by European investors, have sought inspection services for horse meat ever since.
The animal rights groups involved in the lawsuit — the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, Marin Humane Society, Horses for Life Foundation and Return to Freedom, along with five individual plaintiffs — contend that the Agriculture Department did not perform reviews required by the National Environmental Protection Act before authorizing Valley Meat to operate.
“The U.S.D.A. has failed to consider the basic fact that horses are not raised as a food animal,” Hilary Wood, president of Front
Range Equine Rescue, said in a statement. “Horse owners provide their horses with a number of substances dangerous to human health. To blatantly ignore this fact jeopardizes human health as well as the environment surrounding a horse
Valley Meat has said that it will test meat it produces to ensure it does not contain any residues of certain harmful
substances. The company, however, ran afoul of New Mexico environmental regulations when it operated as a cattle slaughterhouse after regulators took photos of piles of rotting carcasses on its property. After tangling with the regulators, Valley Meat closed, citing financial difficulties, in 2012.
The New Mexico attorney general recently raised concerns about the potential environmental impact of horse slaughtering and said the office’s environmental crimes unit would monitor Valley Meat to ensure its compliance with state environmental laws.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to once again ban horse slaughter, but the Agriculture Department has said repeatedly that until that happens, it must provide inspection services. The department referred calls about the lawsuit to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.