From: Food Product Design
By: Josh Long
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—An agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacks discretion to deny requests to inspect horse slaughter facilities if they meet requirements under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, rendering an environmental review essentially meaningless, government lawyers argue.
Citing the failure of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), animal welfare groups—including Front Range Equine Rescue, Horses for Life Foundation and Humane Society of the United States among others—have sued the agency in federal court.
The lawsuit has at least temporarily thwarted the plans of three facilities in Iowa, Missouri and New Mexico to slaughter horses for human consumption. The controversial practice has infuriated animal rights groups and divided Native American tribes.
In a brief filed last month, Justice Department lawyers argue NEPA doesn’t apply to its horse slaughter oversight because FSIS lacks the authority to impose environmental conditions or deny a proposal for inspection on environmental grounds.
Since federal law requires FSIS to grant inspections to facilities that meet eligibility requirements under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, “environmental considerations pursuant to a NEPA analysis could not have changed FSIS’ decision,” the government lawyers wrote.
The animal rights groups that have sued FSIS vigorously disagree, and a federal judge is leaning in their favor. In temporary restraining orders that enjoin FSIS from dispatching inspectors to the horse slaughter facilities, Chief U.S. District Judge Christine Armijo has found plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claims.
The judge is expected to make her final decision—whether to grant a permanent injunction—by the end of October. A final ruling is likely to be challenged before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
Plaintiffs have challenged FSIS’s decisions to grant inspections and a directive that relates to a drug residue testing program for equines. FSIS Directive 6130.1 provides instructions to government personnel on how to inspect horses before and after they are slaughtered, including instructions for drug residue testing.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs cite a number of environmental hazards associated with horse slaughter facilities before three plants closed six years ago.
“As described in the record, individuals in the vicinity of previous horse slaughter plants were forced to endure a noxious stench, dealt with blood in streams, and sometimes even found blood and horse tissue running through their water faucets,” plaintiffs wrote in a brief. “Whether this will happen again is precisely the question that should be explored in a properly prepared NEPA document.”
NEPA typically requires federal agencies to assess the environmental consequences of a proposed action through an “environmental assessment” (EA) and/or a more comprehensive “environmental impact statement” (EIS). FSIS has conducted neither an EA nor an EIS in connection with the horse slaughter facilities or the agency’s drug residue testing program.