ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Federal officials have granted a southeastern New Mexico company's request to open a horse slaughterhouse, adding Friday that they plan to grant similar permits to operations in Iowa and Missouri.
With the action, Valley Meat Co. of Roswell 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. 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 says the USDA has to send inspectors to the plant before it can begin operation. 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 resisted approving Valley Meat Co.'s application, prompting the lawsuit.
The USDA also is lobbying for an outright ban on horse slaughter, and the Obama administration's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would effectively reinstate a ban on the industry.
Both the House and Senate agriculture committees have endorsed proposals that would cut the funding. But it is unclear when an if an agriculture appropriations bill will pass this year.
"Since Congress has not yet acted to ban horse slaughter inspection, (the agriculture department) is legally required to issue a grant of inspection today to Valley Meats in Roswell, N.M., for equine slaughter," said USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe. "The Administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law."
The issue has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation and what rescue groups have said are a rising number of neglected and starving horses as the West deals with persistent drought.
Proponents of a return to domestic horse slaughter point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since slaughter was banned in 2006. They say it is better to slaughter the animals in humane, federally regulated facilities than have them abandoned to starve across the drought-stricken West or shipped to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since 2006, the report says. And many humane groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline.
Many are pushing for a both a ban on domestic slaughter as well as a ban on shipping horses to Mexico and Canada.
Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.