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USDA ready to OK horse slaughtering in Roswell

This April 15, 2013 photo shows Valley Meat Co., which has  been sitting idle for more than a year, waiting for the Department of Agriculture to approve its plans to slaughter horses. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday April 30,2013 that he expects the plant to open soon. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)
This April 15, 2013 photo shows Valley Meat Co., which has been sitting idle for more than a year, waiting for the Department of Agriculture to approve its plans to slaughter horses. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday April 30,2013 that he expects the plant to open soon. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)
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Unless Congress acts soon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to issue a permit to a controversial horse slaughter plant in Roswell that will allow it to begin operations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

Valley Meat Co. says it is ready to open the plant as soon as it receives the permit. It argues that horse slaughter is a viable alternative to the burgeoning population of unwanted horses that are routinely sent to Mexico for slaughter.

Most of New Mexico’s congressional delegates oppose the Roswell plant, which would be the first horse slaughter house in the U.S. in six years, and some are supporting various legislation aimed at domestic horse slaughter houses.

In an April 18 letter to Vilsack, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he shares the concerns of many of his constituents regarding the plant, including “the difficulty of humanely slaughtering a horse, and the potential health risks that horse meat possesses because these animals are not raised for human consumption.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., cosponsored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 while in the House. He is now cosponsoring Senate Bill 541, the Safeguard American Food Exports, or SAFE, Act, according to his staff. The bill, introduced last month by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., would declare the consumption of horse meat as unsafe, and outlaw the sale and transport of horses or horse meat for processing for human consumption.

Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., also oppose the opening of the Roswell plant for horse slaughter.

But Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district includes Roswell, said banning domestic horse slaughter does not result in humane treatment of horses.

“If horse slaughter is not allowed in the U.S., horses are merely shipped to other countries where the pregnant, starving, and lame horses face far less humane slaughter than they would here,” Pearce said in a statement. “And, in this recession, many middle class families can no longer afford to feed their pet horses, and are forced to turn them loose to die a horrible and agonizing death from starvation.”

Vilsak told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the Agriculture Department is working to make sure the process for opening the plant, which was once a cattle slaughter house, is done properly.

Valley Meat Co. has been attempting to obtain the permit for more than a year. Last fall, it sued the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service over inaction on its permit application.

The Obama administration opposes horse slaughter, but Vilsack said the USDA is duty bound to open the plant – unless Congress takes action.

Albuquerque attorney A. Blair Dunn, who represents Valley Meat Co. owner Rick de los Santos, said Monday that the USDA’s walk-through inspection of the plant last week found no problems, and that he expects the agency to issue a permit – technically, a “grant of inspection” – in short order. Once the permit is granted, the plant can begin operating, Dunn said.

Critics of horse slaughter for consumption say Mexican plants are essentially unregulated, and that horses are handled and killed inhumanely. They also point to recent news reports in Europe where horse meat was found intermingled with beef.

Packing plants that slaughter horses for human consumption have been unable to operate in the United States since 2007 when Congress prohibited the USDA from financing inspections of horse meat. That provision effectively stopped horse slaughtering in the U.S. because the meat can’t be sold without inspection.

Congress did not renew the ban in 2011, opening the door for reopening horse slaughter plants.

Both Udall and Lujan questioned whether, under current USDA budget cuts, the agency can afford the additional financial burden of paying for another inspection service.

“I have supported legislation in the past that has included similar provisions to ban horse slaughter in the United States and I will continue to support those efforts,” Luj├ín said through a spokesman Tuesday.

“Horses are an integral part of our culture in New Mexico and it is important that they are treated humanely and that the interests of their owners are protected.”

Lujan Grisham said she’s supporting House Resolution 1094 by Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., which would prohibit the sale or transport of equines and equine parts in interstate or foreign commerce for human consumption.

“I oppose horse slaughter and I have urged Secretary Vilsack to reject the Roswell application …” Lujan Grisham said Tuesday. “I look forward to working in Congress and with the administration to explore alternatives to horse slaughter.”

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