ROSWELL, NM – The owner of Valley Meat Co., a former beef processor, is suing the US Department of Agriculture, alleging inaction on the company’s application to resume domestic horse slaughter, according to the Associated Press.

Valley Meat had been in negotiations with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to resume inspections which are required to open the facility for horse slaughter. But the company accused the agency of dragging its feet on the company’s application because of emotional debates over the status of horses as livestock or pets. The company also filed a defamation lawsuit against The Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue and Animal Protection of New Mexico, according to AP.

Rick De Los Santos, the owner of Valley Meat, said he turned to horse slaughter to revive his struggling cattle slaughter business. He said he spoke to USDA about converting his business to horse slaughter, but was told he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to get the proper permits, according to AP. De Los Santos closed his business after 20 years in cattle slaughter.

However, he claims that negative publicity about his plans prompted a change in the USDA’s cooperation. De Los Santos’s plans ignited protests from animal activists, who have said they will block any petition to slaughter horses. The defamation suit alleges that animal rights groups tried to destroy Valley Meat Co.

Congress lifted a five-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections, opening the door for horse slaughter to resume in the US. Federal lawmakers lifted the ban on funding for horse meat inspections partly because of the recession, which began just as horse slaughter stopped. A federal report from the US Government Accountability Office released in June found local animal welfare organizations reported an increase in investigations for horse neglect and abandonment since 2007. Data showed that investigations for horse neglect and abuse in Colorado increased more than 60 percent — from 975 in 2005 to almost 1,600 in 2009.

USDA has until January to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed in late October, according to AP.