By JERI CLAUSING, Associated Press
A Friday court hearing is set on the latest effort to block a Roswell company from resuming domestic horse slaughter.
State District Judge Matthew Wilson in Santa Fe has issued a temporary restraining order preventing Valley Meat Co. from opening before he can hold the initial hearing on New Mexico Attorney General Gary King's lawsuit against the plant.
It is the latest in a series of stops and starts for Valley and a Missouri company, which have been preparing to open in the coming weeks after a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by animal protection groups and a federal appellate court lifted a stay on operations pending the group's appeal.
Following the federal court rulings, King stepped in this month with a lawsuit saying Valley Meat's operations would violate state laws related to food safety, water quality and unfair business practices. Although the meat would not be sold domestically, it would be processed and shipped to other countries for human consumption and use as animal and zoo food.
Valley Meat attorney Blair Dunn calls the lawsuit frivolous and was preparing a response Tuesday challenging the state district court's jurisdiction in the matter.
Meantime, Valley owner Rick De Los Santo said he has been working with state environment department officials to get the proper permits for removing wastewater in hopes of opening in the next week or two.
He said he is planning to initially only slaughter horses under contract with a larger Canadian slaughterhouse, which he said will supply drug-free horses from their feedlots.
"A big deal with Gary King is that we are going to be putting drugged meat into the food chain," De Los Santos said. ".... The (company) actually buys the horses and puts them in the feedlot and has them graze there for 180 days to ensure there is no drug residue. ... So I think that is the best way to do it, especially at the beginning. People think, oh they are going to be buying horses here and there, and they are going to be stealing little girls' ponies. It's not that way at all."
In Missouri, Rains Natural Meats had horses on site ready to open but has run into its own roadblocks with its state environmental permits, Dunn said.
Valley, Rains and an Iowa company last year won federal permits to become the first horse slaughterhouses to operate since Congress effectively banned the practice by cutting funding for inspections at the plants in 2006. The last of the domestic plants closed in 2007, but Congress in 2011 reinstated the funding.
The Iowa company switched to cattle after being blocked from opening in August by the filing of the lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups.
De Los Santos has led the effort to force the Department of Agriculture to permit the plants, sparking an emotional, national debate on whether horses are livestock or companion animals.
Animal protection groups have thrown their support behind King.
Proponents argue it is better to slaughter unwanted horses domestically than have them shipped thousands of miles to Canada or less humane facilities in Mexico.