ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the southern New Mexico plant that has been trying for more than a year to get permission to slaughter horses will open soon, unless Congress reinstates a ban on the practice.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Vilsack said the department was working to make sure the process was handled properly for the opening of what would be the first domestic horse slaughter house in six years.
"We are going to do this, and I would imagine that it would be done relatively soon," Vilsack said.
Valley Meat Co. sued the USDA last year, saying inaction on its application was driven by emotional political debates and that the delays had cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The USDA re-inspected the plant last week.
"It will open unless Congress restores the ban on horse slaughter that they had in place," Vilsack said. "If that doesn't happen, then we are duty-bound to do what needs to be done to allow that plant to begin processing."
The Obama administration opposes horse slaughter. Its recent budget proposal eliminates funding for inspection of horse slaughter houses, which would effectively reinstate a ban on the practice.
Congress eliminated that funding in 2006, which forced a shutdown of domestic slaughterhouses. But Congress reinstated the money in 2011, prompting Valley Meat Co. and a handful of other businesses around the country to seek permission to open plants.
The debate over whether to return to domestic horse slaughter has divided horse rescue and animal humane groups, ranchers, politicians and Native tribes.
At issue is whether horses are livestock or pets and how best to control the nation's exploding equine population. Supporters of horse slaughter cite a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since 2006. 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 shipped to inhumane facilities south of the border.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since 2006, and some animal welfare groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline. Many are pushing for a both a ban on domestic slaughter and a ban on shipping horses to Mexico and Canada.
Vilsack said the administration understands the concerns and "needs to be more creative" in finding alternative solutions to horse overpopulation.