The battle over the first horsemeat processing plant in the U.S. in seven years is heating up, with a court hearing in Albuquerque fast approaching.
The facility in Roswell is scheduled to open in two weeks but in the latest development, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has 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 reluctantly 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.
Attorney General King’s filed a motion last 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.” Part of the argument by opponents claims that 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 (July 22). “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 saying 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. late Monday by declining a request to renew the firm’s wastewater discharge permit. The NMED says 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. Valley Meat Co. attorney Blair Dunn cried foul, saying the agency was unfairly targeting a small family-owned business. He says the plant can still open, but would have to haul its own 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 (July 22), 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 said.
“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 on 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 was 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.