The issue has garnered widespread press coverage within New Mexico, a state where agriculture traditionally ranks high as a vital industry but is also home to an environmentally conscious population active in animal rights issues.

Last week’s House vote was heavily divided along party lines, but surprisingly perhaps, a few conservatives voted against the bill while a slightly larger number of Democrats jumped the aisle in support of the bill.

(See related: Horse slaughter suit hits USDA, humane society)

Adding fuel to the controversy in recent weeks has been news of a lawsuit filed by a Roswell, N.M., meat company operated by owner Rick del los Santos who claims the USDA is dragging their feet over his request for inspections to resume horse slaughter operations. If the lawsuit were successful, it would effectively clear the way for the plant to resume horse slaughter operations and allow the plant to ship horse meat to customers across international borders.

The suit also names the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico as plaintiffs and seeks damages for what the lawsuit claims is defamation of character and obstruction designed to keep the company from operating a legal processing operation.

Animal right activists are quick to point out that the meat plant’s owner was issued a compliance order from the New Mexico Environment Department last August for failure to register as a compositing facility property located near the slaughterhouse, and for failing to properly dispose of solid waste. The order came after a two-year standoff over Valley Meat’s failure to move a 400 ton pile of composted cattle remains because a local landfill could not receive the waste due to state restrictions. The company was eventually fined $86,400 over the issue but appealed the action.

The company has also come under fire for the inhumane treatment of animals related to their beef cattle operations, but attorneys for the company say in spite of substantial investments in improvements at the facility, USDA and state regulators have been slow in responding to repeated requests for the resumption of inspection activities because the issue has “become a political problem.”