The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not required to conduct an Environmental impact Statement nor an Environmental Assessment in order to grant equine-inspection services to businesses planning to pack horsemeat for export, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo ruled Friday.
The judge denied the request by animal-welfare groups for a permanent injunction and dismissed the case challenging USDA’s authority.
The decision is a massive loss for the Humane Society of the United States, which largely funded the lawsuit and enlisted 15 other groups and individuals to join it as plaintiffs.
It was a defining victory for the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys who reaffirmed USDA powers contained in the Federal Meat Inspection Act that go back more than 100 years. It means that horse slaughter for human consumption in other countries could resume shortly under USDA inspection for the first time since 2006.
“Valley Meat Company, LLC, and Rains Natural Meats are both very pleased with the decision of Judge Armijo,” said Albuquerque attorney A. Blair Dunn. “This is a very well-reasoned and through opinion. Valley and Rains are very grateful for the hard work and thought that Judge Armijo put into this decision. Both companies will now focus on final preparations to open and begin work.”
Both Valley Meats and Rains Natural Meats, along with Iowa’s Responsible Transportation, obtained grants of inspection from USDA. The two businesses which Dunn represents are now going forward with their plans, while the Iowa firm’s intentions now are not known.
Armijo, the chief federal judge in New Mexico, sided with USDA’s historic interpretation of its governing law, namely that it has little or no discretion over whether to issue a grant of inspection. Instead, she ruled that USDA has a duty to inspect meat and meat products even of the unpopular equine variety.
At one time, she noted, the Secretary of Agriculture was given the “discretion” to provide inspectors, but Congress changed that to “the Secretary shall provide such inspectors.”
Since the horse and animal-welfare groups sued USDA four months ago, nationally known animal-law attorney Bruce A. Wagman had argued that inspection decisions fell under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Policy Act (APA). But the federal court found these only apply to discretionary agency actions, not to those mandated by law.
Other federal laws and rules enforced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also apply to horse-slaughter facilities, including requirements for hazard and sanitation plans, humane animal handling and proper sanitary conditions. The three equine packing houses had met those requirements as part of the USDA grant of inspection process.
While horsemeat is a source of protein for consumers in Asia and Europe, no issue involving animal agriculture stirs emotions more in the U.S than does horse slaughter.
Through a spokesman, the HSUS is promising to “not only appeal the decision but also to work with the states to block the plants from opening in Iowa, Missouri and New Mexico and step up efforts in Congress to stop the slaughter of American horses – in the states and also in Canada and Mexico.”
“Our legislative and legal activities have prevented horse slaughtering on American soil since 2007,” added Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO. “With today’s court ruling and the very real prospect of plants resuming barbaric killing of horses for their meat in the states, we expect the American public to recognize the urgency of the situation and to demand that Congress take action. Court fights and state legislative battles have been important, but this is an issue of national importance and scale, and Congress should have an up-or-down vote on the subject.”
In the now-dismissed case, both sides agreed to allow the judge to hear it on an expedited basis. An appeal would likely go to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Denver.
© Food Safety News