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Another search for elusive answers in Roswell, NM

The West is full of monuments from Tucson to Mountain Meadows of famous shoot-outs and massacres that usually brought nothing more that pyrrhic victories for one side. On that basis, it’s time to erect another of those roadside plaques at the site of the former Valley Meat Co. outside of Roswell, NM.

It’s the location where horse slaughter in the U.S. made it’s last stand. After 2011, when President Obama and Congress lifted the 2007 prohibition on USDA expenditures to inspect horse slaughter, five mostly small town companies tried to get U.S. equine packing businesses up and running.

None made it by the time the ban was reimposed in 2014. Obama has continued the ban ever since, including in his proposed 2017 budget made public Tuesday.

But the last and longest stand came in New Mexico, where the Valley Meat Co., a former beef plant, was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make the equine transition when the New Mexico attorney general put a halt to it with a temporary injunction in state court.

That order became final only last week with a permanent injunction against Valley Meat Co., Dairyland Packing Inc., Mountain View Packing and Ricardo De Los Santos, non-parties Jose Hernandez, Ryoichi Okubo, and D’Allende Meats LLC and any person or entity “in privity with the above.”

They are all permanently barred “from slaughtering horse for human consumption, and from manufacturing, selling, or distributing horse meat products for human consumption in New Mexico.”

While some media reported that District Judge Francis J. Mathew’s order bans all horse slaughter in New Mexico, it does not. In reality, it doesn’t mean much because as long as USDA is prohibited from providing equine inspections, no horse can be slaughtered for human consumption anywhere in the USA.

In a federal court proceeding in late 2015, attorneys for the Valley Meat investors were working pro bono because there is no more money, but they were still searching for answers. They suggested the horse slaughter investors may have lost up to $1 billion, but they were in federal court contesting paying attorney’s fees of $5,640 to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

By making a discovery request for e-mails and so-called meta-data, attorneys A. Blair Dunn and Dori E. Richards were at least suggesting that the Attorney General’s case was being run by the attorney working for animal rights groups, or worse that this outside firm did the work that was the subject of the bill.

“They’re asking — as they through Mr. Dunn have asked in the past, that Valley Meats has asked in the past — for communications between me and the Schiff Hardin law firm, which represents a horse rescue organization and some individual residents of Roswell, who are concerned about horse slaughter in that community,” said New Mexico’s assistant Attorney General Ari Biernoff.

“And that office and those clients are aligned in interest with the state in the predecessor litigation. We talked about that very briefly in our hearing in January,” Biernoff added.

“But the original plaintiffs in that action (who) were represented by the Schiff Hardin law firm, do share an interest in making sure that Valley Meat doesn’t conduct commercial horse slaughter in the State of New Mexico. And there is nothing ambiguous about that. There is nothing hidden about that.

“The case law is clear that, contrary to Ms. Richards’ insinuation, we don’t need an agreement or a contract to effectuate that. We have a common interest. And we do discuss legal strategy, and we do discuss legal issues. And therefore, my emails with attorneys from that law firm about legal strategy or about legal issues are privileged. And that is exactly why we have not produced those emails to Mr. Dunn, as he requested many months ago in an Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request.”

U.S District Court Judge James O. Browning upheld the award of fees and denied the discovery request. “The Court will not unnecessarily multiply the time and expense involved in this litigation by allowing discovery here,” Browning said in his 65-page ruling.

New Mexico sued under state environmental and health regulations in December 2013. At the time, Valley Meat was attempting to make the transition to equine slaughter and had taken USDA to court to get it to move faster in issuing a “grant of inspection.”

Animal rights advocates led by Front Range Rescue sued USDA in litigation that New Mexico joined, but that federal case ended in dismissal. After that was when New Mexico turned to state courts and state regulations to block horse slaughter.

The complex back and forth in both state and federal courts made for uncertainly in how the dispute was going to come out. The Roswell plant did, in June 2013, obtain the once coveted USDA grant of inspection, allowing in federal meat inspectors. But the state preliminary injunction was issued in January 2014.

Valley Meats was sold to D’Allende Meats, an investment group, and New Mexico added them to the injunction. Dunn says the permanent injunction is far from a blanket ban on horse slaughter in New Mexico.

Animal rights attorney Bruce Wagman of Schiff Hardin told local media the New Mexico case is a warning to other would-be horse slaughter investors than any such efforts will suffer a similar defeat.

With the federal ban being extended into a fourth year, there remains the question of whether horses are better off. In 2011, many areas of the country were experiencing drought conditions and high hay prices. Reports of horses being starved or abandoned were more numerous then than currently.

However, horse populations remain out of control, especially on many public lands. For example, Utah’s school trustees recently sued the federal government for allowing too many wild horses and burros on school trust lands, thereby decreasing  productivity and costing money for schools.

While a few thousand horses are moved to Canada or Mexico each year for slaughter as food, the ban means the only option farmers and ranchers have when a horse nears its end to make the expensive call to the rendering truck.

 

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