Horse slaughter opponents sue over permits

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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Animal protection groups are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to block the revival of domestic horse slaughter at commercial processing plants.

The Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue of Larkspur, Colo., three other groups and five individuals have filed a federal lawsuit seeking an emergency injunction to overturn the USDA's recent permit approval for a horse meat plant in Roswell, N.M. Four of the named plaintiffs are Roswell residents; the fifth lives in Gallatin, Mo., where a Rains Natural Meats equine slaughterhouse could next receive federal approval.

On Tuesday, the federal agency approved a horse slaughter plant in Sigourney, Iowa, and expects to endorse other requests. The Humane Society's lawsuit named prospective processing plants in Gallatin and Rockville, Mo.; Woodbury, Tenn.; and Washington, Okla.

The processors plan to serve overseas markets.

Horse slaughterhouses last operated in the U.S. in 2007 before Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for plant inspections. Federal lawmakers restored the funding in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.

The agency said Tuesday that it was legally required to approve Responsible Transportation's plant in southeast Iowa.

Congress could still cut funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections, effectively reinstating the ban. Both the House and Senate agriculture committees have endorsed such proposals, and the Obama administration's proposed budget for the next fiscal year also eliminates that funding. Another bill would ban U.S. horse slaughter facilities while prohibiting exports.

Even overseas, the practice is sometimes viewed as controversial -- earlier this year, furniture and houseware retailer Ikea was embarrassed after Czech authorities announced they had found traces of horse meat in Ikea's famous Swedish meatballs. Also in Europe, Burger King and Taco Bell found traces of horse meat in what were purported to be all-beef products in the last year.

Historically in the U.S., horse meat once came from free-roaming mustangs, who are viewed as pests by ranchers but as icons of American West by animal rights groups. Today, the slaughter of mustangs for food is illegal, and horses destined for U.S. slaughterhouses would come mainly from auctions, sold by private sellers and breeders.

The suit against the USDA, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charges the agency did not prepare environmental reviews for Valley Meat Co.'s horse meat plant in New Mexico or for the pending requests. It cites negative environmental consequences caused by horse slaughter, including air and water pollution, and charges that the animals can be fed drugs and medication not fit for human consumption because horses in the U.S. "are not raised in regulated industries conscious of public health and safety concerns, but rather in private homes, on racetracks and as working animals."

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