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USDA Officials to Recommend Approving Horse Slaughter Facility

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ROSWELL, N.M.A New Mexico facility has moved a step closer to obtaining government approval to slaughter horses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday inspected Valley Meat Company. A. Blair Dunn, a lawyer representing Valley Meat Company, told The Associated Press agricultural officials found no issues during the inspection and told owners they are recommending immediately issuing a grant of inspection.

Scott Safian, a director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), previously made a recommendation for a federal grant of inspection, subject to Valley Meat Company satisfying the other requirements for inspection, The New York Times reported Monday, quoting an April 13 letter from Safian to the company's owner, Ricardo De Los Santos.

The agency's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) "continues to work with companies who have applied for a grant of inspection for equine slaughter," Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman for FSIS, said Wednesday. "Grants will not be issued until an establishment is able to produce a safe product in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act."

Cochran declined to provide details on Valley Meat Company.

Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue have vowed to sue USDA if it grants approval to Valley Meat Company. They contend the agency has failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

De Los Santos also faces allegations from Front Range Equine Rescue that he failed to disclose his felony criminal record on two applications that were filed with USDA. A third application confirms he has a criminal history, according to the non-profit organization whose stated mission is to stop abuse and neglect of horses. The New York Times said the third application revealed two convictions in Texas, one for criminal trespass 25 years ago and a separate conviction for residential burglary in 1979.

"Everything regarding that information has been vetted" through FSIS, "and has been certified by letter by U.S.D.A. to offer no impediment," the Times quoted Dunn as writing in an email. The lawyer also said Front Range Equine Rescue inaccurately described a case of criminal trespassing as a felony.

Valley Meat Company would become the first business to operate a U.S. horse slaughter facility in years. A federal ban had been in place.

The debate over whether horses should be slaughtered has drawn strong emotions and opinions.

"With more than 80% of Americans opposed to horse slaughter, it's clear that in the eyes of most of us, this practice goes against our very culture," the actor Robert Redford wrote in a letter to Equine Advocates President Susan Wagner, "as horses enjoy favored status in our country, just like dogs and cats."

De Los Santos told The Associated Press he has even faced death threats. "People are saying, 'We will slit your throat in your sleep. We hope you die. We hope your kids die.'"

Valley Meat Company is one of six businesses that have applied for approval to slaughter horses. In addition to Valley Meat Company, FSIS is reviewing applications from Missouri-based Rains Natural Meats and Iowa-based Responsible Transportation LLC, Cochran said earlier this month. The other applications were either incomplete or the applicant lost contact with the agency, she said.

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