“We need to oppose this unspeakable practice with all our might,”
Amid the unfolding horse-meat scandal, a New Mexico slaughterhouse has moved closer to becoming the first in the United States since 2007 to be allowed to process horses for human consumption.
“I am recommending to the Dallas district manager that your application be processed, and a grant of federal inspection be issued, provided you meet all other requirements for inspection,” Scott C. Safian, a director at the Agriculture Department, wrote in a letter dated April 13 to Ricardo De Los Santos, owner of the Valley Meat Company.
“Grants will not be issued until an establishment is able to produce a safe product in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” said an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, Catherine Cochran.
On Monday, an advocacy group for horses sent a letter to the U.S.D.A., asking it not to grant permission for Mr. De Los Santos to operate the facility because he had failed to disclose two felonies on his original application form, as well as on a second, subsequent form.
“Is this really a guy we want to be operating a regulated business, one in which the U.S.D.A. will rely on his representations?” said Bruce A. Wagman, a lawyer representing Front Range Equine Rescue, the advocacy group.
A. Blair Dunn, the lawyer representing Mr. De Los Santos, said Front Range had erroneously described a case of criminal trespassing as a felony. He said the issue was “another desperate attempt to degrade my clients” by Front Range and the Humane Society of the United States.
“Everything regarding that information has been vetted” through the department’s food safety and inspection service “and has been certified by letter by U.S.D.A. to offer no impediment,” Mr. Dunn wrote in an e-mail.
The issue of horse slaughtering has become contentious in light of a labeling scandal in Europe, where ground beef in processed foods made and sold by companies ranging from Nestlé to Ikea was found to contain horse meat.
On Monday, Robert Redford, who starred in “The Electric Horseman” and “The Horse Whisperer,” lent his voice to the debate in a letter to Equine Advocates, a horse welfare group, explaining his opposition to slaughter. “We need to oppose this unspeakable practice with all our might,” Mr. Redford wrote. “It has no place in our culture.”
Horses have not been slaughtered in the United States since 2007, after Congress forbade the use of federal money for inspection of horse meat. That prohibition fell out of legislation in 2011, and Mr. De Los Santos first applied for inspection in December of that year.
On that application, dated Dec. 13, 2011, Mr. De Los Santos wrote “none” in the section asking applicants to account for any felonies they have committed.
A subsequent application dated March 1, 2012 was filled out the same way, with no note made of any felony.
But on a third application dated March 15, 2013, the section is filled out with Mr. De Los Santos’s name and two convictions, one for criminal trespass in Texas in 1988 and the other for residential burglary there in 1978.
Court records show that Mr. De Los Santos was arrested by the Amarillo police department on Sept. 11, 1989 — his third U.S.D.A. application reported the incident occurring a year earlier — on suspicion of criminal trespass but charged only with a moving violation and convicted of that offense.
He was arrested on Aug. 28, 1978, in Dallam County, Tex., charged with residential burglary and convicted.
In his letter, Mr. Safian indicated that the U.S.D.A. and Mr. De Los Santos had been corresponding for some time on the issue. “We note that your April 4, 2013, submittal contends that the disclosed convictions were previously identified on a 1990 application for federal inspection,” Mr. Safian wrote. “However, for clarification, our records indicate prior disclosure of only the 1978 conviction, and no disclosure of a 1988 conviction prior to submittal of your March 2013 application.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Safian concluded that because of the time that had elapsed since the incidents and “other factors,” he was recommending approval of the application.
Mr. Wagman, the lawyer for Front Range, contended that Mr. De Los Santos now has committed a third felony by improperly filling out his first two applications. Under federal law, it is a felony to knowingly falsify, conceal or materially misrepresent facts submitted on a federal application.
Front Range also forwarded to the U.S.D.A. letters from the New Mexico Environment Department to Mr. De Los Santos, noting various failures related to discharge from what was then known as the Pecos Valley Meat Packing Company, a cattle slaughtering operation the De Los Santos family operated in the facility where they are seeking to slaughter horses.
In 2009 and 2010, the U.S.D.A. itself suspended inspection of Pecos Valley Meats, effectively suspending its operations, after finding problems with its sanitation and food safety program including “inadequate” testing for E. coli and “irregularities” in the segregation and disposal of “specified risk materials.” Those are parts of an animal banned for human consumption because they run a higher risk of contamination with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy prions that transmit mad cow disease. Mr. Dunn said the suspensions were only for a short time.
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