As concern over horse meat-tainted food grows throughout Europe, the United States may be on the cusp of authorizing and opening its first horse meat processing plant in more than five years.
A horse slaughterhouse in Roswell, N.M., received word from the U.S. Department of Agriculture saying that they were moving forward with Valley Meat Co.'s application to begin horse slaughter operations, according to Rick de los Santos, a partner in the company.
De los Santos and his partners sued the U.S.D.A. last year in order to have them provide federal meat inspectors to their slaughterhouse.
The inspectors would make viable for the first time since 2007 the slaughter and processing of horse meat, which would then be exported to China and European countries for sale. Horse meat cannot be sold for human consumption in the U.S.
The news comes more than a year after Congress quietly lifted the ban on horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. by leaving it out of a comprehensive spending bill. It had been put into place in 2007, and forced owners to ship their horses out of the country to be slaughtered.
De los Santos said he expects at least two federal meat inspectors to begin working at his processing plant in the near future, he said.
The U.S.D.A. said in a statement released today that it opposed the slaughter of horses for meat in the U.S., but that it had "no choice" but to provide the inspectors to Valley Meat and other slaughterhouses that met federal requirements. It did not elaborate on the reason it opposes the slaughter of horses for meat.
"These companies must still complete necessary technical requirements and (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) 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 statement read.
The Meat Valley plant used to slaughter cattle, but its owners decided to switch to horse meat processing because the cattle market was "drying up" due to the drought, de los Santos said. By comparison, there is little competition in the horse meat market.
"We'd be the first one," he said, noting that more than 130,000 horses were shipped from the U.S. to processing plants in Canada and Mexico last year.
Because federal regulations require slaughterhouses to choose either cattle or horses to process, de los Santos said there would little risk of horse meat tainting the beef supply in those countries where it is distributed.
"One question I've been asked is, 'what about mixing, like the way it's happened in Europe? What about having horse DNA in your burgers?'" de los Santos said, referencing the current scandal in Europe where many major food companies have had to recall beef products when they were discovered to contain horse meat.
"Coming from a federal plant, there's no way it could happen. We can slaughter horses or cattle, we can't do both. So leaving the facility, it would either be all horse, or all cattle. You cannot do both species," he said.
He also dismissed concerns about the safety of horse meat, noting that there have been no reports of unsafe horse meat where it is currently sold and eaten,
"There has always been drug residues in any type of meat you slaughter," de los Santos said. "But 130,000 horses a year are going into Canada and Mexico and we haven't heard of people dying overseas form eating horse meat. Horses are being eaten overseas anyway. If there were (unhealthy) drug residues, they would be found."
The U.S.D.A. declined to comment further.