Horse meat in a grocery store in Canada

A Missouri company has requested to open a horse slaughterhouse in the north-central part of the state — and federal officials indicated last Friday that the project could “soon” receive the necessary permit.

The news comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that they have granted a request to open a similar facility in New Mexico, paving the way for Valley Meat Co. of Roswell to become the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.

A spokeswoman for USDA, Courtney Rowe, said the company seeking to operate a plant in Missouri is called Rains Natural Meats. The firm wants to open a plant in Gallatin, which is northeast of Kansas City.

Rowe said she didn’t know when USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service would grant Rains’ permit.

“FSIS cannot predict for sure, but we expect to issue soon,” Rowe said. “All necessary requirements still must be met.”

Rains Natural Meats was created in 1998, according to a search on the Missouri secretary of state’s website. The company’s website is no longer active, but an archived advertisement indicates that it sells beef, pork lamb, cheese and other products. The advertising copy boasts of hormone and antibiotic-free animals that are “fed on local farms.”

A recording on a phone number associated with the company indicated that the company was closed during the 2012 deer hunting season. Attempts to reach a company official were unsuccessful.

A staff member at Gallatin City Hall said she did not have any information about the proposed plant. Attempts to contact a Daviess County commissioner were unsuccessful.

A third permit is also being sought by Responsible Transportation LLC for a proposed slaughterhouse in Sigourney, Iowa.

Missouri has been in the news for proposed horse slaughterhouses before. In February 2012, Wyoming-based Unified Equine announced its interest in building one in Texas County, near Mountain Grove. It nixed the plan the next month, however, and in June announced plans to retrofit a cattle slaughterhouse in Rockville for horses by the end of the summer. That project also failed to come to fruition.

In Roswell, Valley Meat Co. has been fighting for approval from the U.S. 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 granting of the permit comes more than six months after the company 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 is also 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 and 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,” Rowe said. “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 of horse slaughter 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.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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