By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Monday granted an emergency request by animal protection groups to temporarily block the U.S. government from conducting inspections of horses destined for slaughter.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a temporary injunction barring the U.S. Department of Agriculture from providing horse meat inspection services to Roswell, New Mexico-based Valley Meat Co, Responsible Transportation, in Iowa, and Rains Natural Meats, in Missouri.
The order comes after a U.S. District Judge in New Mexico on Friday threw out a lawsuit, which the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups had filed in July, that sought to permanently halt the slaughter of horses.
The suit alleged that the Department of Agriculture failed to carry out environmental reviews before it gave approval to the three companies to slaughter horses for human consumption.
The district judge had found that the grants of inspection were properly issued and dismissed the lawsuit, clearing the way for the equine killing to resume.
However, in an emergency request to the 10th Circuit on Monday, the animal protection groups argued that an emergency injunction was necessary to prevent environmental harm and the violation of federal environmental laws while their appeal is pending. A two-judge panel of the 10th Circuit granted that request.
Horse meat cannot be sold as food in the United States, but it can be exported. The meat is sold for human consumption in China, Russia, Mexico and other countries and is sometimes used as feed for zoo animals.
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006 by saying the USDA could not spend any money to inspect the plants. Without USDA inspectors, slaughterhouses cannot operate.
The ban had been extended a year at a time as part of USDA funding bills, but the language was omitted in 2011.
Groups have argued for years about whether a ban on slaughter would save horses from an inhumane death or cause owners to abandon animals they no longer want or cannot afford to feed and treat for illness.
The case is Front Range Equine Rescue et al v. Vilsack et al, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-2187.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Ken Wills)