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It's been awhile since the U.S. Agriculture Department lifted its ban on slaughtering horses for their human consumption but you still won't find horse meat at your neighborhood supermarket.

Animal rights groups are pressuring Congress to reimpose the ban and various problems are cropping up at the state level. In Maine, the House voted Tuesday to ban commercial horse slaughter to produce meat for human consumption. And in New Mexico, the state attorney general has delivered an opinion that horse meat is adulterated under state law.

The ban, imposed in 2007, was lifted in 2011 after the USDA's Inspector General found it was contributing to inhumane treatment of horses. Owners hard hit by the recession and the high cost of grain were abandoning their horses, letting them starve to death, the IG's report said.

But now that the ban has been lifted, animal welfare groups are protesting and there's concern that the antibiotics and other drugs pumped into horses could leave dangerous residues in the meat.

"Adulterated food"

There are strict limits on the drugs that can be used in cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals that are routinely raised as food, although critics say the limits are not strict enough and are not adequately enforced.

Cantering into the dispute is New Mexico Attorney General Gary K. King, who issued an opinion saying that horse meat "fits the legal definition of an adulterated food product." 

“Our legal analysis concludes that state law does not allow for production of meat that is chemically tainted under federal regulations,” said King.  “New Mexico law is very clear that it would be prohibited and illegal.”

That dashed the hopes of Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., which had been hoping to be the first USDA-inspected horse slaughter facility since 2007. 

A Valley Meat employee didn't do much to help his employer's cause when he shot a horse to death in March and posted it on YouTube, expressing his disdain for animal welfare advocates.

"To all you animal activists, f*** you," Tim Sappington says in the video, NBC News reported. He then shoots the horse in the head. The video was later removed by YouTube because it violated the video site's terms of service, a notice posted on the site said.

A television news report quoted Ricardo De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat, as saying he didn't mind Sappington shooting the horse but didn't think he should have put it on YouTube.

Maine invokes Paul Revere

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In Maine, lawmakers voted 94-49 in favor of a bill that would ban slaughtering horses for human consumption and would also make it illegal to transport horses through the state for that purpose. Animal welfare groups have charged that American horses are sometimes shipped to Canada for slaughter, possibly passing through Maine. 

“If not for a horse, would Alexander have been the Great? Would Paul Revere had spread the word? Can you imagine the Lone Ranger on the back of a cow?” said Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, the Bangor Daily News reported. “I would dare say they are very different from your average livestock.”

California, Texas, Illinois and several other states also ban slaughtering horses for food.

Would-be butchers say slaughter is more humane than letting horses starve to death or be subject to mistreatment, which animal groups note is illegal under animal cruelty statutes. They also contend that the USDA's National Residue Program, which tests newly slaughtered meat for illegal drug residues, pesiticides, hormones and contaminants would protect horse meat just as it now protects beef, pork and other food products.

The Animal Welfare Institute disputes the claim that slaughtering horses is sometimes a humane option and quotes federal statistics which found that 92.3 percent of horses slaughtered before the ban took effect were in good condition and were being slaughtered for profit, not for humane reasons. 

The organization also quotes surveys showing that nearly 70 percent of Americans support a federal ban on slaughtering horses. 

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