By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - Owners of a planned horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico that would be the first such facility to operate in the United States in years filed notice on Monday of their plan to sue the state attorney general for slander over his efforts to block the plant from opening.
State Attorney General Gary King last month sued and secured a temporary restraining order against Valley Meat Co, which had planned to convert its cattle slaughterhouse in Roswell, New Mexico, to one processing horsemeat beginning on January 1.
Characterizing King's lawsuit as a libelous act of political grandstanding, an attorney for Valley Meat said the company would likely seek several million dollars in damages in a suit it plans to file next month. The lawsuit will claim slander, harassment and malicious abuse of process, according to the letter of intent.
"He defamed a whole product and a whole industry," Valley Meat Co attorney A. Blair Dunn said of King. "My clients are not horrible environmental actors like he's trying to claim."
The move is the latest in an ongoing legal battle that has pitted opponents of horse slaughter against an industry fighting to regain a foothold in the United States.
A spokesman for the attorney general, a Democrat who has announced plans to run for New Mexico governor in 2014, dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous and insisted it would not sway his boss from fighting to keep the facility from opening.
"We've taken a very strong stand against horse slaughter in New Mexico and this lawsuit appears to be an attempt to intimidate," said the spokesman, Phil Sisneros. "We're not giving up."
The attorney general's lawsuit said that Valley Meat had a long history of violating state environmental rules, including leaving piles of cattle carcasses to rot and be eaten by maggots.
It also asserts that because many horses are administered scores of drugs while alive, their meat is likely adulterated, unsuitable for human consumption and in violation of state food safety laws.
Dunn counters that the horses, whose meat would be sold as zoo animal feed in the United States and for human consumption in parts of Europe and Asia, would be taken off any drugs before slaughter and given time to flush the substances from their system.
The piles of rotting cattle described in the suit consisted of at least 80 percent manure and were in fact compost piles, Dunn said.
The Valley Meat facility would be equipped to slaughter 120 horses a day, Dunn said. The company would buy unwanted horses at auction and from the stock of free-roaming horses of domestic ancestry on Native American tribal lands.
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006 by saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture could not spend any money to inspect the plants. The ban had been extended a year at a time as part of USDA funding bills, but the language was omitted in 2011.
A federal appeals court in Colorado last month vacated a temporary ban on USDA inspections at slaughterhouse facilities, ruling against animal protection groups seeking to block Valley Meat and other aspiring horse slaughter facilities from opening. The restraining order the attorney general secured against Valley Meat in a New Mexico court remains in effect.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)