By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - A temporary ban on horsemeat processing has been added to a 2014 omnibus spending bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, a Democratic senator said, as a New Mexico judge weighs blocking a return of horse slaughter plants in the state.
The measure would bar the United States Department of Agriculture from using federal funds to inspect horsemeat, effectively outlawing an industry that has fought to regain a foothold since the last U.S. horse slaughterhouses were shuttered in 2007.
The federal spending bill will move to the U.S. Senate, which is expected to pass it this week and send it to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.
"Slaughtering horses is inhumane, disgusting and unnecessary, and there is no place for it in the United States," Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a proponent of the measure, said in a written statement.
The legislation comes as a New Mexico slaughterhouse seeks to become the first to operate in the United States since 2007, a move the state's attorney general, Gary King, has sued to block.
With a midnight Wednesday deadline looming for new spending authority, lawmakers will still need a three-day stop-gap funding extension to ensure enough time for passage of the spending bill this week.
In New Mexico, the case against Valley Meat Co was brought by the state's attorney general, Gary King, who asserted that horsemeat is unfit for human consumption and in violation of state food safety laws because of the scores of drugs the animals are administered while alive.
Horse meat is not consumed by Americans, but is eaten in parts of Europe and Asia, and is fed to some U.S. zoo animals.
A ruling in the New Mexico case is expected on Friday, though it would be rendered moot by a USDA inspection ban, and the lawsuit may be withdrawn if Congress acts before the judge rules, said Phil Sisneros, spokesman for King.
An attorney for Valley Meat, which plans to convert its cattle slaughterhouse into one that processes horsemeat, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
If passed by Congress, the measure banning USDA inspections of horsemeat would apply through the end of September - but could be extended in the event of so-called continuing resolutions that keep the government's spending on autopilot until a new spending package is authorized.
"It could last for nine months, or it could last for two years," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Human Society of the United States, which supports the ban.
Congress passed a horsemeat inspection ban in 2006, with the three horse slaughter plants on U.S. soil - two in Texas and one in Illinois - shutting down the following year in the wake of additional state judicial and legislative action. But U.S. lawmakers did not renew the ban in 2011, creating an opening for the contentious industry to reemerge.
Proponents of horse slaughter have pointed to a growing population of unwanted horses in the United States as a reason to bring the industry back.
Opponents counter that there are more humane ways of dealing with an excess horse population, including expansion of horse sanctuaries and, in some cases, euthanasia.
The Humane Society last year filed a lawsuit seeking to block Valley Meat and others from opening horse slaughterhouses in several states. That case, which is pending in a federal appellate court in Colorado, would also be rendered moot by congressional action, Pacelle said.
Landrieu is among the lawmakers pushing a more comprehensive measure, known as the SAFE act, that would create a permanent ban both on horsemeat processing in the United States and on the export of American horses to be slaughtered abroad.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Richard Chang)