The United States Department of Agriculture is likely to approve a horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico in the next two months, which would allow equine meat suitable for human consumption to be produced in the United States for the first time since 2007.
The plant, in Roswell, N.M., is owned by Valley Meat Company, which sued the U.S.D.A. and its Food Safety and Inspection Service last fall over the lack of inspection services for horses going to slaughter. Horse meat cannot be processed for human consumption in the United States without inspection by the U.S.D.A., so horses destined for that purpose have been shipped to places like Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the agriculture department, said that "several" companies had asked the agency to re-establish inspection of horses for slaughter. "These companies must still complete necessary technical requirements and the F.S.I.S. must complete its inspector training," he wrote in an e-mail referring to the food inspection service.
(Read more: The Economics of the Taboo Against Eating Horse Meat)
He said the Obama administration was urging Congress to reinstate an effective ban on the production of horse meat for human consumption that lapsed in 2011.
The impending approval comes amid growing concern among American consumers that horse meat will somehow make its way into ground beef products in the United States as it has done in Europe. Major companies, including Tesco, Nestle and Ikea, have had to pull food from shelves in 14 countries after tests showed that products labeled 100 percent beef actually contained small amounts of horse meat. Horse meat is not necessarily unsafe, and in some countries, it is popular. But some opponents of horse slaughtering say consumption of horse meat is ill-advised because of the use of various kinds of drugs in horses. (Read More: IKEA: No Horse in Meatballs in the US Stores)
"We now have the very real prospect of a horse slaughtering plant operating in the U.S. for the first time in six years," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. The last plant that slaughtered horse meat for human consumption in the United States closed in 2007, after Congressional approval of an appropriations bill that included a rider forbidding the U.S.D.A. from financing the inspection of such meat. That rider was renewed in subsequent appropriations bills until 2011, when Congress quietly removed it from an omnibus spending act.
(Read more: A Hint of Horse Meat Has a Nation Squirming More Than ItsNeighbors)
That opened the door for a renewal of the horse slaughter business, but only if the U.S.D.A. re-established inspections. The agency never moved to restart its equine inspection service.
Valley Meat sued Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and Al Almanza, the head of the food safety inspection service, charging that the department's failure to offer inspection of horse meat violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
That law directs the agriculture department to appoint inspectors to examine "all amenable species" before they enter a slaughtering facility.
"Amenable species" were animals subject to the act the day before it was enacted, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses and mules.
A. Blair Dunn, the lawyer for Valley Meat, said that the Justice Department recently asked the company for an additional 60 days to file a response to its lawsuit. Mr. Dunn said the Justice Department indicated it was asking for the extra time because "the U.S.D.A. plans to issue a grant of inspection within that time, which would allow my clients to begin operations." Mr. Dunn said that Valley Meat had hired experts in the humane treatment of horses for slaughter and was training employees. The company is not planning to sell meat in the United States, at least at the outset of its operations. "Last spring, they were in discussions with several companies in European countries about exporting their products," he said of his clients. "I'm sure if markets do develop in this country for horse meat for human consumption, they will look at them."
He cautioned that Valley Meat might still face challenges to opening, noting that several parties had filed briefs on both sides of the case. The Humane Society has petitioned the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration to delay approval of any facility for horse slaughter, raising questions about the presence of drugs like phenylbutazone, which is used to treat inflammation in horses.
Conversely, R-CALF USA, an organization representing about 5,000 family cattle ranching operations, has filed a brief supporting Valley Meat's legal case. Bill Bullard, its chief executive, said his members needed horse slaughtering facilities to humanely dispose of the horses they used in their businesses once they became old or incapacitated.
"Beginning in 2006, when inspections were temporarily prohibited, these U.S. horses continue to be slaughtered in foreign countries like Mexico and Canada," Mr. Bullard said. "We believe the Mexicans do not adhere to the same humane standards as in the United States, and so some of our members won't sell their horses."
Mr. Pacelle said he had been surprised to see anyone from the beef industry supporting horse slaughter. "For the cattle industry, it is a self-destructive move, since the more horse meat that's circulating, the greater the chance it will infiltrate the food supply and decrease consumer confidence in beef," he said.——