ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal officials cleared the way Friday for a return to domestic horse slaughter, granting a southeastern New Mexico company's application to convert its cattle facility into a horse processing plant.
In approving Valley Meat Co. plans to produce horse meat, USDA officials also indicated they would grant similar permits to companies in Iowa and Missouri as early as next week.
With the action, the Roswell, N.M., company is set to become the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.
The company has been fighting for approval from the Department of Agriculture for more than a year with a request that ignited an emotional debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions.
The decision comes more than six months after Valley Meat Co. sued the USDA, accusing it of intentionally delaying the process because the Obama Administration opposes horse slaughter.
Valley Meat Co. wants to ship horse meat to countries where people cook with it or feed it to animals.
In a statement, the company said it was "encouraged that after well over a year of delay that the process has finally reached completion. Valley will now begin final preparation to hire 40 to 100 employees over the coming weeks and months so that they may go to work providing a humanely harvested, safe, legally compliant product to the world markets."
Although the USDA granted the company's certification, it was unclear when it would actually be able to begin slaughtering horses. Valley Meat Co. attorney Blair Dunn said the USDA has to send inspectors to the plant before it can begin operation. The USDA said Valley Meat would have to notify the plant in advance to get inspectors on site.
The plant would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the country since Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections at the plants. Congress reinstated the funding in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits permit, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.