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Horse meat plant in US near approval

NEW YORK — With a horse meat controversy raging in Europe, the US Department of Agriculture is likely to approve a horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico in the next two months — making it the first time since 2007 that equine meat suitable for human consumption will be produced in the United States.

The plant, in Roswell, N.M., is owned by Valley Meat Co., which sued the USDA in the fall over the lack of inspection services for horses going to slaughter. Horse meat cannot be processed for human consumption in the United States without inspection by the USDA, so horses destined for that purpose have been shipped to places such as Mexico and Canada for slaughter.

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Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department, said several companies had asked the agency to reestablish inspection of horses for slaughter.

He said the Obama administration was urging Congress to reinstate an effective ban on the production of horse meat for human consumption; that ban lapsed in 2011.

The impending approval comes amid growing concern among US consumers that horse meat will somehow make its way into ground beef products in the United States as it has done in Europe. Major companies, including Tesco, Nestle, and Ikea, have had to pull food from shelves in 14 countries after tests showed that products labeled 100 percent beef contained small amounts of horse meat. Horse meat is not necessarily unsafe, and in some countries it is popular. But some opponents of horse slaughtering say consumption of the meat is ill-advised because of the use of various kinds of drugs in horses.

“We now have the very real prospect of a horse slaughtering plant operating in the US for the first time in six years,’’ said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. The last plant that slaughtered horse meat for human consumption in the United States closed in 2007, after congressional approval of an appropriations bill that included a rider forbidding the USDA from financing the inspection of such meat. That rider was renewed in subsequent appropriations bills until 2011, when Congress removed it from an omnibus spending act.

That opened the door for a renewal of the horse slaughter business, but only if the USDA reestablished inspections. The agency never moved to restart its equine inspection service.

Valley Meat sued Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and Al Almanza, the head of the food safety inspection service, charging that the department’s failure to offer inspection of horse meat violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

That law directs the agriculture department to appoint inspectors to examine ‘‘all amenable species’’ before they enter a slaughtering facility.

“Amenable species’’ were animals subject to the act the day before it was enacted, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses, and mules.

A. Blair Dunn, the lawyer for Valley Meat, said the Justice Department recently asked the company for an additional 60 days to file a response to its lawsuit. Dunn said the Justice Department indicated it was asking for the extra time because ‘‘the USDA plans to issue a grant of inspection within that time, which would allow my clients to begin operations.’’

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