ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- U.S. officials have indicated they might soon grant an inspection needed to start processing horse meat at a southeastern New Mexico slaughterhouse.
But the Obama administration threw a new twist in a more than yearlong debate over how best to humanely deal with a rising number of abused and neglected horses with a statement urging Congress to reinstate a ban on equine slaughter.
The revelations Friday come on the heels of public outcry over recent cases where horse meat was found mixed with other meat products in Europe.
Attorney A. Blair Dunn says the U.S. Department of Justice, in a response to a lawsuit by Valley Meat Co., told him this week that agriculture officials hope to grant the inspection for the Roswell slaughterhouse in the next 45 to 60 days.
The company and its owner, Rick de los Santos, last year sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume the inspections necessary to open what would be America's first new horse slaughterhouse in more than five years. The suit alleges USDA inaction on the company's application was driven by emotional political debates and has cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The USDA said in an emailed statement that "several companies" have requested that its Food Safety and Inspection Service re-establish inspection.
"These companies must still complete necessary technical requirements and FSIS must still complete its inspector training, but at that point, the Department will legally have no choice but to go forward with inspections, which is why we urge Congress to reinstate the ban," the agency said.
The dispute between Valley Meat Co. and agriculture officials began more than a year ago, after Congress removed what effectively had become a ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. De Los Santos, whose cattle slaughter business had dropped off as area ranchers sold their herds because of drought, said that is when he first talked to the USDA about converting his slaughterhouse to handle horses.
He said he was encouraged to do so but told he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to get the proper permits.
He said he shuttered his business and set about converting it, but claims he was stonewalled as publicity about his plans reignited a national debate about how to deal with a growing number of abused and abandoned horses.
Many animal humane groups and public officials were outraged at the idea of resuming domestic horse slaughter, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Others, however, including some horse rescuers, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006.
Asked about the administration publicly urging reinstatement of the ban, Dunn said, "I have trouble believing that it is merely a coincidence" that it follows the outcry over horse meat in Europe.