Federal agriculture officials on Friday cleared the way for a New Mexico facility to slaughter horses.
It would be the first horse slaughterhouse approved to produce horse meat for human consumption since 2007.
Lawmakers in both parties have pushed for legislation that would completely ban slaughterhouses for horses, but those bills have failed to move through Congress.
"Since Congress has not yet acted to ban horse slaughter inspection, [the USDA's inspection office] is legally required to issue a grant of inspection today to Valley Meats in Roswell, N.M. for equine slaughter," a spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson added, "The Administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter. Until Congress acts, the Department must continue to comply with current law."
Legislators vowed to make the slaughterhouse short-lived.
“Congress should promptly reinstate the provision that prohibited spending federal dollars to inspect horse slaughter facilities and I am encouraged my colleagues have taken steps to do so," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). "I will continue my work to prevent horse slaughter in the pending agriculture appropriations bill.”
It has been difficult to purchase horse meat for consumption in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress approved legislation that prohibited federal funds from being used to inspect slaughterhouses for horses, which effectively banned the practice.
For the last two years, however, Congress had not passed legislation with the same prohibitions.
In addition to the facility the USDA granted an inspection to on Friday, the department said it will also likely approve applications for similar facilities in Missouri and Iowa as soon as Monday.
USDA said it was required to approve inspections for establishments that meet the necessary requirements under existing law.
Animal rights groups criticized the administration for approving the facility and called on Congress to pass legislation to ban slaughtering horses for meat.
“The writing is on the wall – Americans don’t want our horses slaughtered, here or in any other country," said Nancy Perry, senior vice president of government relations with ASPCA. "Moving ahead with a government program to fund horse slaughter inspections is a cruel, reckless and fiscally irresponsible move."
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) also opposed the decision.
"Like the overwhelming majority of Americans across the country, New Mexicans oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption," she said in a statement. "Not only is there not a domestic demand for horse meat, the act of slaughter itself is considered inhumane by experts, given that a horse’s biology makes them difficult to stun, leaving them conscious during the slaughter process.”
A February 2012 poll for the ASPCA showed that 80 percent of American voters oppose slaughtering horses to be eaten by humans in the U.S.