A New Mexico slaughterhouse has petitioned the federal government to become the first business to offer horse meat for human consumption since an effective ban on the practice ended last year, according to state officials and animal welfare groups.
Those groups said last week they are rallying to try to block the slaughterhouse's petition, hoping to head off what they fear could be a series of slaughterhouses applying to produce horse meat.
"Horse slaughter means tremendous suffering of horses, a proven history of environmental and waste violations, and allowing a toxic meat product to enter the human food chain," said Hilary Wood, president and founder of Front Range Equine Rescue, a Colorado-based group that said it uncovered the slaughterhouse's plans.
The animal welfare groups said the slaughterhouse has been in negotiations with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for several months about beginning to process horse meat.
Since 2006 the federal government had effectively banned American slaughterhouses from processing horse meat by defunding the Agriculture Department's ability to inspect plants that butchered horses for consumption. Without inspections, the meat couldn't be sold.
But last June, a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's chief investigative arm, found that rather than improving conditions for horses, the domestic ban backfired.
It depressed prices for horses in the U.S. and led to a surge in reports of neglect or abuse as owners of older horses had no way of disposing of them, short of selling them to "foreign slaughtering facilities where U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply."
In unusually blunt language, GAO urged Congress and President Obama to revisit the ban.
Late last year Mr. Obama signed a spending bill that stripped out the defunding language, effectively clearing the way for slaughterhouses to ramp up horse butchering again.
The move got a tepid stamp of approval at the time from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which said it had always been worried about the backdoor ban.
But horse welfare groups and the Humane Society of the U.S. vowed to try to pressure any state that allowed horse slaughter — and several states still have their own bans in place.
New Mexico does not have such a ban in place — but the state's attorney general said he opposes the application from a company in Roswell, calling it "a terrible idea."
"Such a practice, while not illegal, is certainly abhorrent to public sentiment, and I strongly suggest it be abandoned," said Attorney General Gary King. "I come from a ranching family but processing horses for food was never part of the plan for raising livestock. Horses are different and should be treated differently."
FSIS, the federal agency that conducts inspections, has turned down three horse slaughter applications because the plants wanted to slaughter horses at the same facilities as other animals such as cattle or sheep, which is prohibited by federal regulations. FSIS denied waivers in each case.
A spokesman did confirm that an application from a New Mexico company to conduct horse-only slaughter is still being reviewed.
The spokesman said the government could not name the establishment because it is considered commercial proprietary information, but the animal rights groups said their own investigation has identified Valley Meat Co. in Roswell.
A message left with the company wasn't returned.
Horse meat does not play a large role in American cuisine, but is eaten in many other countries.
The Humane Society and Front Range Equine Rescue last month asked the Food and Drug Administration to prevent any horses not specifically raised for their meat from being approved for human consumption, arguing the drugs the animals are given throughout their lives make them dangerous to people.
The groups said that's different than pigs, cattle and other animals raised specifically for consumption.
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