ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Federal officials cleared the way Friday for a return to domestic horse slaughter, granting a southeastern New Mexico company's application to convert its cattle facility into a horse processing plant.
In approving Valley Meat Co.'s plans to produce horse meat, Department of Agriculture officials also indicated they would grant similar permits to companies in Iowa and Missouri as early as next week.
With the action, the Roswell, N.M., company becomes the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.
But the company's attorney said on Friday that he remained skeptical about Valley Meat Co.'s chances of opening any time soon, as the USDA must send an inspector to oversee operations and two animal rights groups have threated lawsuits to block the opening.
"This is very far from over," attorney Blair Dunn said. "The company is going to plan to begin operating in July. But with the potential lawsuits and the USDA -- they have been dragging their feet for a year -- so to now believe they are going to start supplying inspectors, we're not going to hold our breath."
The company has been fighting for the permit for than a year, sparking 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.
The Justice Department moved Friday to dismiss the case. Dunn said he would fight to keep it open until all issues, including attorneys' fees, are resolved.
Valley Meat Co. wants to ship horse meat to countries where people cook with it or feed it to animals.
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 been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.
The USDA said it also expects to issue permits next week for Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and Responsible Transportation in Iowa.
"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," USDA spokeswoman Courtney 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 Obama administration's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would effectively reinstate the ban. And 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.
A return to domestic 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.
The Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue said they would follow through on plans to file suit to try to block the resumption of horse slaughter.
"The USDA's decision to start up domestic horse slaughter, while at the same time asking Congress to defund it, is bizarre and unwarranted," Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the humane society, said in a statement. "Slaughter plants have a history of polluting their communities and producing horse meat that is tainted with a dangerous cocktail of banned drugs. We intend to hold the Obama administration accountable in federal court for this inhumane, wasteful and illegal decision."
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, leaving fewer humane options for horse owners who can't afford to care for or euthanize their animals.
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 sold at auction houses that then ship them 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. Many humane groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline. Many are pushing for a ban on domestic slaughter and a ban on shipping horses to Mexico and Canada.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a horse lover, said "creating a horse slaughter industry in New Mexico is wrong and I am strongly opposed."
New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell, a veterinarian, called on local, state and federal leaders to "work together to create solutions and provide sustainable funding to care for or humanely euthanize these unwanted horses. Continuing to ignore the plight of starving horses, creating a new horse slaughter plant, or exporting unwanted horses to Mexico won't solve this problem."
The Yakama Nation in Washington state applauded the USDA's decision. Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin said "we hope that such a plant can also open somewhere in the Pacific Northwest to assist us in dealing with over 12,000 feral horses that are severely damaging our homelands."
In a news release, he said the horses have overgrazed the land, leaving some valleys and hillsides without grass or plant life.