Horse-meat production in New Mexico was allowed to proceed by a federal judge who ruled that U.S. Agriculture Department inspections at slaughterhouses can take place without an environmental-impact review.
U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo in Albuquerque, who in August had ordered a temporary halt to the planned start of horse-meat production in the state, today issued a final ruling in the lawsuit brought by environmental and animal rights groups against the federal government.
The Humane Society sued the Agriculture Department for agreeing, without an environmental review, to provide inspectors so that a Roswell, New Mexico, slaughterhouse and one in Iowa could start operations. New Mexico Attorney General Gary King also opposed the resumption of slaughter of horses for human consumption.
“The issuing of a grant of inspection is a mandatory act not subject to National Environmental Policy Act review,” the judge said.
From 2006 through 2011, Congress had halted funding for inspection at horse slaughter plants. The prohibition on funding was not extended for 2012 and 2013, thereby allowing commercial horse slaughter to resume legally. The USDA has received application for horse slaughtering inspection in five states, according to the judge’s order.
“We are filing our appeal shortly,” Bruce Wagman, a lawyer for the groups who brought the case, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are very disappointed that the court has reversed itself and committed clear legal error in so doing, and are hopeful that the Court of Appeal will reverse the decision and uphold the law and protect America’s horses.”
Absent further court orders, Roswell’s Valley Meat Co. may begin operations next week, said the company’s attorney, A. Blair Dunn.
“Certainly in the next couple weeks, barring something happening from the court perspective,” he said in a phone interview.
The idea of killing horses for food has generated heated opposition from animal-welfare advocates who say it is cruel and could introduce unhealthy meat into the food supply, and it has spurred legislation in Congress to keep it from happening.
While horse meat is consumed in many nations, including France, China, Mexico and Russia, its presence in U.K. meat set off an outcry in Europe earlier this year that devastated consumer demand for suddenly suspect beef. It could do the same in the U.S., said Marion Nestle, a public-health and nutrition expert at New York University.
About 4.6 million horses lived on U.S. farms in 2007, the last year the Agriculture Department counted them and the final year of domestic slaughter. The U.S. slaughtered 94,037 animals in 2005, the last full year before funding dried up.
Without a U.S. plant, horses have gone to Mexico or Canada for slaughter, enduring thousands of miles in trucks and on trains criticized both by animal-welfare groups as cruel and by agricultural organizations as an argument for a domestic industry.
Exports of live horses last year to other North American countries were 197,442, more than double the number in 2007 and more than six times what it was a decade ago.
The case is Front Range Equine Rescue v. Vilsack, 13-cv-00639, U.S. District Court, District of New Mexico (Albuquerque).