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March 1 (Reuters) - Animal rights groups are threatening to sue the U.S. government if officials move ahead with plans to allow meat-packing companies to resume the slaughter of horses for human consumption, a practice that was banned in 2006.
"It's a big fight," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "We will sue if we have to. We're also working with Congress to stop this."
Congress lifted a 2006 ban in the fiscal 2012 appropriations act and since then "several" companies have asked for government inspections that would allow them to start slaughtering horses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Without new action by Congress, the department has no choice but to allow slaughterhouse inspections to proceed, USDA said. Though horse meat cannot be sold in the United States for human consumption, it could exported.
Indeed, USDA notified Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, New Mexico, this week that the company's application for inspections would be approved after an extended delay, according to Valley Meat owner Ricardo De Los Santos.
Valley Meat filed suit against the USDA for delaying the process after it shut down beef operations and retrofitted its plant to allow for horse slaughter, said De Los Santos.
The company slaughtered cattle for two decades but closed that business down as drought and poor market conditions eroded profits, said De Los Santos. With roughly 130,000 horses currently estimated to be shipped out of the United States annually to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, horse slaughtering seems like a viable market, he said.
"We've always killed cows. But business has slowed down and we're looking at things we can do to keep operating," De Los Santos told Reuters.
The last U.S. plants to slaughter horses for human consumption were shut in 2007, after Congress banned the USDA from funding the required inspections of the plants. That measure was renewed every year until 2011.
Horse meat is sold for human consumption in China, Russia, Mexico and other foreign countries, and is sometimes used as feed for zoo animals.
A scandal continues to roll in Europe after testing in Ireland in January found that some products marketed as beef contained equine DNA.
The contamination has since been found in Taco Bell products as well as spaghetti Bolognese and beef lasagna, according to British regulators, in the meatballs sold by Sweden's IKEA furniture superstore in much of Europe, and in other outlets.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico joined the Humane Society in saying they would try to beat back the decision to process inspection applications for horse slaughter.
USDA faced criticism in 2012 when plans were announced for a horse slaughter plant in Rockville, Missouri. Those plans have been put on hold.
De Los Santos, though, said he has been forced to lay off his 40 employees awaiting government action since Valley Meat filed its application over 18 months ago. He has been fielding threatening phone calls and an onslaught of insults after word got out this week about his plans.
"They call and tell me 'I'm a murderer, I have blood on my hands,'" he said. "They pick on the little guys, not the big beef packers. I have to make a living one way or the other."