(Updates with USDA inspection process starting in eighth paragraph.)
March 1 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will be legally obligated to inspect horse-slaughtering plants if Congress doesn’t act to reinstate a ban on the killing of the animals, which would only be used in meat for export, the Department of Agriculture said.
Congress last year lifted the ban established in 2006 that prevented horse slaughter in the U.S., Michelle Saghafi, a USDA spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement today. While no plants are currently authorized to slaughter horses, “several companies” have asked that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service re-establish inspections, the agency said.
“These companies must still complete necessary technical requirements and FSIS must still complete its inspector training, but at that point, the department will legally have no choice but to go forward with inspections, which is why we urge Congress to reinstate the ban,” according to the USDA statement, which did not give a time frame on when inspections would occur.
The first horse-slaughtering plant may be approved in the next two months, according to A. Blair Dunn, a lawyer for Valley Meat Co., owner of a plant in Roswell, New Mexico. The New York Times reported the possible approval earlier today.
Valley Meat filed a lawsuit against the USDA and FSIS in October and alleged that the USDA was violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act by failing to offer inspection for horse meat, Dunn, who is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in a telephone interview. The law states that the USDA must appoint inspectors to examine “all amenable species,” which include horses, before slaughter, Dunn said.
This week, the Justice Department asked for another 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, Dunn said. The request was made so “USDA can make sure all the components are in compliance in order to issue a grant of inspection,” according to Dunn. The USDA has notified Valley Meat that the company has completed all of its requirements to move forward, Dunn said.
Once approved, Valley Meat will sell the horse meat for export, Dunn said. They’d be open to selling domestically if there is a market, he said.
FSIS doesn’t allow imports of horse meat from other countries to the U.S. for human consumption, Cathy Cochran, a spokeswoman for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, said in an e-mailed statement. Also, none of the countries or companies in the European Union that have recently recalled beef because of non-disclosed horse meat ship beef to the U.S., she said.
In Europe, retailers withdrew products such as frozen beef burgers, lasagnas and meat balls from the shelves after the discovery of horse meat in products in several countries, after the initial case in Ireland in mid-January. The European Union has ordered immediate testing across the region for equine DNA in beef products and the veterinary drug phenylbutazone in horse meat.
“The meat and poultry inspection process in the U.S. puts FSIS inspectors carrying out our mandatory inspection requirements in U.S. plants every day they operate and at ports of entry inspecting products that come into our country,” Cochran said in the statement.
The agency also conducts “port-of-entry reinspections” for imported products, and that offers evidence on how other country’s inspection systems are working, she said. In addition, there are yearly reviews of countries that export to the U.S. to make sure they are “at least equivalent” to the U.S. process, she said. FSIS also conducts on-site regulatory system audits at least once every three years in nations that ship to the U.S.
--Editors: Steve Stroth, Patrick McKiernan