ROSWELL, N.M. -- The owner of a New Mexico slaughterhouse is defending his plan to become the first plant in the nation since 2007 to handle horses after an outcry from politicians and animal activists.
In interviews with the Roswell Daily Record and the Albuquerque Journal on Friday, Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos said he's trying to revive his failing business and that what he's proposing is legal.
The horses he plans to process are being slaughtered anyway in Mexico and his operation would be overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and meet much higher standards, he said.
The company's application for federal inspections at the plant just outside Roswell triggered an outcry when it became public Friday, with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez calling on the USDA to deny his application.
If his application to the USDA is approved, De Los Santos said horse meat will be exported to Mexico and be for Mexican consumption. He said the exportation of horse carcasses might be a better option than exporting live horses to Mexico, which involves holding the horses at the border. De Los Santos also said horse slaughter methods in Mexico may be less humane than in the U.S.
"There's no regulation as to how they (slaughter horses) in Mexico," De Los Santos told the Daily Record. "It's nowhere close to the USDA standards."
Horse slaughter has effectively been blocked since Congress withheld funds for USDA inspections of horse meat plants in 2006. But a recently passed agriculture bill provides the money.
De Los Santos said the official number for live American horses exported to other countries for slaughter is 100,000; but the figure may be closer to 130,000.
"All I'm saying is we can take some of those and slaughter them here," De Los Santos told the Journal.
The company, which has a 7,290 square-foot plant on a 10-acre site, has been slaughtering cattle for about 20 years, but has recently been unable to continue doing business because the cost of cattle has risen dramatically with the recession.
The company that once had 40 to 45 employees is currently not operating. Slaughtering horses, De Los Santos said, might be the only way to save his company. He laid off his last 10 employees three weeks ago.
"All we're doing is trying to make a living," he said. "My whole life is invested in this business." He said he was unaware until recently that, if approved, his company would be the only slaughterhouse in the U.S. to slaughter equines.
The USDA is reviewing Valley Meat's application for a grant of inspection, which would put federal inspectors in the plant to oversee the processing. The agency said Friday that it had earlier rejected three horse-processing applications because the plants would also process cattle. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service bars the processing of horses with any other animal.
If he receives USDA approval, De Los Santos told the Journal that he planned to slaughter 20 to 25 horses per day to start "which is not a whole lot, compared to what's available."
The meat from his plant would be exported by an El Paso partner, whom he declined to name, into Mexico. "Everyone who's ever eaten tacos in Mexico, I guarantee you they've eaten horse meat down there," he said. "It would never be my intention to sell it in the U.S."
Valley Meat's application to the USDA was disclosed this week by Front Range Equine Rescue, which obtained USDA documents and emails through a federal records request.
Gov. Martinez, a Republican, and Attorney General Gary King and State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, both Democrats, voiced opposition to the horse slaughtering plan Friday.
King called the prospect of a horse slaughtering operation in the Roswell area "a terrible idea" while Powell, a veterinarian, said: "New Mexico can do much better by these intelligent and gentle creatures."
Martinez's office said the governor plans to send a letter to the USDA urging the federal agency not to allow the horse slaughtering operation, and she will seek the support of New Mexico's delegation in Washington, D.C.
"A horse's companionship is a way of life for many people across New Mexico. We rely on them for work and bond with them through their loyalty," Martinez said. "Despite the federal government's decision to legalize horse slaughter for human consumption, I believe creating a horse slaughter industry in New Mexico is wrong and I am strongly opposed."