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New Mexico Attorney General sues to block horse slaughter operation

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New Mexico's attorney General filed a lawsuit Thursday in state district court in an attempt to stop a local horse slaughter plant from opening in less than two weeks.

The suit was filed by Attorney General Gary King after a federal appeals court repealed an restraining order that had prevented Valley Meat Co. from opening a horse slaughter operation. On Monday, Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos said the company was ready to begin operations by Jan. 1.

In a statement, Valley Meat Co.’s attorney Blair Dunn called King's lawsuit frivolous and a waste of taxpayer money. Dunn said the state will be required to post a security bond to the company while the legal challenge goes through the courts. According to Dunn, such a bond could cost New Mexico as much as $435,000 a month.

"As a New Mexican, as a taxpayer, I'm beyond offended and I think it's almost criminal what they're doing. They're wasting everybody's money," Dunn said.

King defended the state’s lawsuit, saying Valley Meat stands to violate several state laws which affect food safety, water quality and unfair business practices.

"I believe that the operation of this plant in New Mexico is antithetical to the way we do business in New Mexico," King said. "We don't eat horses in New Mexico, and we think this is an inappropriate use of this plant."

Because the lawsuit involves alleged violations of the state's Unfair Practices Act, King's office also disputes Dunn’s claim that the Attorney General’s office would have to pay a bond.

Valley Meat has been in the forefront of the effort to resume domestic horse slaughter operations in the United States for the last two years, after Congress lifted its ban on the practice. In several surveys, Americans remain opposed to horse slaughter, with about 80% of survey respondents saying they do not want to horse slaughter resumed.

In August, as plants in the three states were preparing to open, The Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, Animal Protection of New Mexico and other animal protection interests sued to block the opening of Valley Meat Co. and two other plants, saying they had not met the Department of Agriculture's permitting process.

A federal judge in Albuquerque issued a temporary restraining order. However, in November, U.S. District Judge Christine Armijo threw out the lawsuit, allowing all three companies to proceed.

The animal protection groups appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued an emergency motion that again blocked the plants from opening. The appellate court lifted that order last week, saying the groups "failed to meet their burden for an injunction pending appeal."

Animal Protection of New Mexico and Front Range Equine Rescue were among the groups throwing their support behind King's lawsuit on Thursday.

According to the lawsuit filed today, Valley Meat has an extensive history of violating state and federal environmental and safety laws while operating as a beef slaughterhouse. The state says Valley Meat's failure to monitor and test water samples as part of its past discharge permits dates back decades. The company is also accused of disposing of meat carcasses illegally.

Dunn challenged the state's claims and accused King, a Democrat who is running for governor, of politicizing the case.

Dunn said Valley Meat will continue to prepare for operations to begin by Jan. 1, 2014. The company says it has multiple international contracts lined up and 20 horses already at the plant.

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