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Federal appeals court temporarily halts horse slaughter for human consumption

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Cuts of horsemeat are displayed in a shop window at the horse butchery near Paris.Reuters

A federal appeals court has temporarily put the brakes on plans to resume horse slaughter for human consumption in the U.S., after a New Mexico judge last week dismissed a push by animal rights groups to stop the practice.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Monday issued a temporary injunction barring the Department of Agriculture from inspecting the plants.

Slaughterhouses in New Mexico and Missouri had hoped to start up as soon as this week after the federal judge in Albuquerque on Friday threw out a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups. 

Their lawsuit alleged the Agriculture Department failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to the slaughterhouses. The groups filed an immediate appeal and won the emergency injunction.

"Horse slaughter is a predatory, inhumane business, and we are pleased to win another round in the courts to block killing of these animals on American soil for export to Italy and Japan,"  Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States said after the injunction was issued Monday. "Meanwhile, we are redoubling our efforts in Congress to secure a permanent ban on the slaughter of our horses throughout North America."

Blair Dunn, who represents Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., and Rains Natural Meats of Gallatin, Mo., emphasized the order was temporary.

"We know the 10th Circuit will follow the law and allow my clients to proceed as soon as our side is considered," Dunn said. "The plaintiffs have misstated the law, the facts and the science. We look forward to a quick decision when the facts are considered and the District Court's careful decision is reviewed."

The practice of slaughtering horses for human consumption was legal and fairly common in the United States for many years.

In 2005, Congress voted to withhold funding for USDA inspections of horse meat. It was a way to stop the slaughters because meat for human consumption at the time had to be inspected.

However, the USDA gave the OK for slaughterhouses to pay for their own inspections. Congress voted to end the practice in 2007.  

The measure to stop the slaughters lapsed in 2011 and now U.S. companies are clamoring to get back into the game.

Across the country, businesses have been applying for permits with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They want to ship horse meat to countries where it is eaten by humans or used as animal feed. 

Retail purchase of horse meat for human consumption in the U.S. is not yet approved but the possibility could be coming. 

The Humane Society had pledged after the New Mexico judge's decision that it would “not only appeal the decision, but also work with the states to block the plants from opening in Iowa, Missouri and New Mexico and step up its efforts in Congress to stop the slaughter of American horses.”

"With today's court ruling and the very real prospect of plants resuming barbaric killing of horses for their meat in the states, we expect the American public to recognize the urgency of the situation and to demand that Congress take action," Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said in a statement last week. "Court fights and state legislative battles have been important, but this is an issue of national importance and scale, and Congress should have an up-or-down vote on the subject."

The idea of killing horses for food has triggered strong reaction among people on both sides of the issue.

Several animal rights organizations have linked legalizing the practice to horrific abuses and animal cruelty that they claim could lead to unsafe meat. They call the slaughters themselves a “brutal and terrifying end for horses.”

“Horses are shipped for more than 24 hours at a time without food, water or rest in crowded trucks,” the Humane Society says. “They are often seriously injured or killed in transit.”

Once at the slaughterhouse, the horses are stunned, the Humane Society claims, adding that because they are skittish animals by nature, the horses often “endure repeated blows and sometimes remain conscious during dismemberment.”

Supporters, though, say that claims of cruelty are overblown and that while there is some risk in transporting any animal to slaughter, it is not a common occurrence.  

Supporters also say that horse slaughtering facilities in the U.S. will provide a humane alternative for aging, starving or abandoned horses by owners who can no longer afford to take care of them.

A 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2007. They say the ban on domestic slaughter has led to tens of thousands of horses being shipped to inhumane slaughterhouses in Mexico. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 166,000 horses were sent to Canada and Mexico last year for slaughter.

Supporters also take issue with the taboo of eating horse meat and say the animal is consumed in countries all over the world and could be extremely profitable to American companies interested in the industry. They also argue that horses should be treated no differently than pigs, chickens and cows.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), China is one of the largest consumers of horse meat. In France, the meat is considered to be a delicacy, sold in the same vein as veal in the U.S.

FoxNews.com's Barnini Chakraborty and The Associated Press contributed to this report