UPDATE: Valley Meat Co., now seeking a grant of inspection to allow it to slaughter horses for export, had its beef slaughter inspectors pulled from the plant for five days for the company’s inhumane treatment of animals.

The incident resulting in the suspension occurred on Feb. 24, 2012 when both an employee using a  .40 caliber pistol and a backup .410 shotgun failed to humanely kill an animal. None of the first four shots penetrated the skull.  The USDA inspector on site immediately took regulatory action by tagging the knocking area, shutting down further slaughter operations.

Roswell, NM-based Valley Meat Co. was informed on Feb. 29 that the suspension was being held in abeyance after USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was provided written assurances on how the company would make sure  that there would be  no further occurrences of inhumane handling.

The 7,290 square foot beef plant was closed because of the deteriorating beef market, according to owner Ricardo De Los Santos.  He wants to use the ten acre Roswell site to slaughter horses for export to keep the business alive.

Our original story continues below.

The New Mexico slaughterhouse is the first since a 2007 ban was lifted to apply for federal inspection of a horsemeat-for-export operation.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has not said how long it will take to process – one way or the other – the application of Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, NM.

New Mexico rancher Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat Co., says he plans on exporting to Mexico. He says the horses he plans to slaughter would end up being slaughtered anyway under lower standards than will be employed by USDA.

The last three horse slaughter operations in the U.S. shut down in 2007 after federal courts upheld state statues in Texas and Illinois banning the sale and possession of horsemeat and the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

In addition, Congress banned the use of appropriated funds for USDA inspection of horse slaughter operations beginning in 2007.  Around Thanksgiving 2011, shortly after pardoning a turkey, President Obama agreed to lift that ban. A House-Senate Conference Committee had approved it.

Since then, it has only been a question of who would come forward with a genuine application for federal inspection services.  For a time, it appeared as if that might be Wyoming lawmaker Sue Wallis, who heads up a company called Unified Equine, which wanted to commence slaughtering horses at a facility in Mountain Grove, MO.

Mountain Grove residents objected, and Unified Equine is looking elsewhere in Missouri.

Into the breach has stepped New Mexico’s Valley Meat Co., previously a beef slaughter facility that due to prices has become unprofitable. De Los Santos makes a pretty straightforward argument — the New Mexico facility will slaughter horses under USDA standards that are far higher than non-existent standards in Mexico.

The horsemeat would be for human consumption, but only outside the U.S.

Horsemeat may have a niche market in the U.S., especially among immigrants from locations around the world where eating horse meat is common. However, the vast majority of Americans find eating horse meat repugnant, seeing the animals either as companions or free spirits that should be allowed to run wild.

The American view, however, is seen as weird by people in South American, China, Japan, and many European countries including France, Italy and Switzerland, where horsemeat is viewed as lean, finely textured, slightly sweet, rich in protein and tender.

There is no risk of bovine diseases or E. coli in horsemeat, which puts it on the safe scale.  It’s sold widely as minced meats, sausages, brochettes and steaks. Demand outside of the U.S. is strong, making the New Mexican application easy to understand.

Also since the 2007 ban, horse values in the U.S. have plummeted, causing many animals to be left abandoned and starving. U.S. horse slaughter shifted to Canada and Mexico and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) questioned whether horses being shipped out of the country were being hurt more than they would with an in-country slaughter facility.

So, the $65 million a year horse slaughter industry might be coming back to the U.S., and the New Mexico facility might be the first step along that road.

In its application for federal inspection, De Los Santos has delivered to FSIS a:

– Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan, meaning a food safety “process control program”

– A Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure

– A suitable facility, where it says the walls, floors and ceilings are cleanable; impervious to moisture, insects and vermin; and meeting other sanitary requirements

FSIS has the Valley Meats application under review, but has not said how soon it will announce a decision. The Roswell slaughterhouse, which laid off employees due to the high cost of beef, might need as many as 50 employees if it got the green light to enter the horse slaughter business.

“All we’re doing is trying to make a living,” De Los Santo told a local newspaper.  “My whole life is invested in this business.”

That is not good enough, however, for New Mexico’s top elected officials, who’ve come out against horse slaughter in their state. The popular Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is joined by Democratic officials, Attorney General Gary King and State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, in opposing the application.

When horses are exported for slaughter, they are required to have a “Fitness to Travel to a Slaughter Facility,” stating that the horse is over 6 months of age, not blind in both eyes, can bear weight on all fours, is able to walk unassisted and not likely to give birth during transport. However, USDA last year told the U.S. Government Accountability Office that some horses are exported as “feeder” horses, likely ultimately sent to slaughter facilities but not counted that way immediately.

With horses for slaughter — about 130,000 a year — going to Mexico and Canada, the GAO report said horse sales and prices have both declined since the 2007 when the ban in the U.S. became effective at both the state and federal levels.

GAO, in a 2011 report, said the least valuable horses became almost 21 percent less valuable after the ban. The end result was that abandoned, abused and neglected horses became a burden on state and local governments, tribes and animal welfare organizations.

One situation mentioned in the GAO report involved a Billings, MT ranch that in January 2011 could no longer care for its horses, which were seized and caused such a burden on state and county resources that only a plea to the public saved the animals.