By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Horse slaughter could soon resume in three U.S. states after a federal appeals court in Colorado vacated a temporary ban on inspections at slaughterhouse facilities.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said on Friday that animal protection groups had "failed to meet their burden" for continuing an 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 decision could pave the way for the first horse slaughter operations in the United States in more than five years.
A temporary injunction was granted to animal protection groups by the appeals court last month after the animal advocates lost a legal battle to ban horse slaughter permanently.
The advocates had argued that the Department of Agriculture failed to carry out environmental reviews before it allowed the companies to expand their slaughterhouse operations to include horses for human consumption.
The animal advocates are continuing to press for a permanent ban, filing an appeal through courts in New Mexico.
In lifting the temporary injunction, the federal appeals court in Denver said the groups had not "presented any non-speculative evidence that they (or the environment) will suffer irreparable harm" if limited horse slaughters resume.
Horse meat cannot be sold as food in the United States, but 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.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney)