A Roswell, New Mexico, meat company has filed suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over a lack of action on a request for inspections that would clear the way for the company to resume domestic horse slaughterhouse operations in an effort to revitalize horse meat food services to foreign buyers.

Company owner Rick del los Santos says the company is still waiting for federal action though the lawsuit was filed last October. Federal court officials say the USDA has until January to respond to the request but confirm they will continue to process the lawsuit in the interim.

(For more, see: Like horses to the slaughterhouse)

Valley Meat Company is suing the federal government, alleging USDA inaction on its application has cost the company “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in recent months. The company has also filed suit against advocates for the humane treatment of animals, who Santos claims defamed his business during what he termed “an expensive, yearlong fight” over his proposal. That suit names the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico as plaintiffs.

If the USDA approves the request, or if the court forces the fed agency to take action, it could result in clearing the way for the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse operation in more than five years.

At stake, perhaps, is the lingering issue of whether horses, that some refer to as noble creatures that helped tame the American West, are pets or should be considered livestock, much the same as cattle or sheep.

The company says they made the decision to apply for permits to resume slaughter of horses for food after the severe drought greatly reduced their earnings as a cattle processing plant. Ranchers all across the Southwest and other drought-stricken areas of the nation culled cattle herds as a result of extreme water and forage shortages over the last two years.

The dispute, which began over a year ago after Congress removed what effectively had become a ban on horse slaughter in the U.S., has caused what the company calls a financial hardship that threatens the company to lay off workers or even close its operation. De los Santos says when his cattle slaughter business dropped off as a result of the drought, he decided to talk to USDA about converting his slaughterhouse to handle horses.