02/08/2006 12:00AM

Slaughterhouses get fee OK

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The Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that slaughterhouses in the United States would be able to pay fees to allow federal inspections of horsemeat at their facilities.

The program, to begin March 10, will allow the three slaughterhouses in operation in the nation to continue to process horse meat this year. Last year, Congress passed a bill that prohibited the agriculture department from providing funds to inspect horsemeat at the facilities for a one-year period beginning in 2006.

According to estimates by the agriculture department, approximately 65,000 horses were killed in U.S. slaughterhouses last year.

In an announcement outlining the fee program, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said that the bill's prohibition on federal funds for inspections "does not eliminate the FSIS' responsibility under the [Federal Meat Inspection Act] to carry out post-mortem inspection of carcasses and meat at official establishments that slaughter horses."

The fees will be designed to cover the costs of the federal inspections, the FSIS announcement said.

Michael Markarian, the executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said that fee-for-inspection program indicated that the inspection service and agriculture department were "ignoring the directives of Congress" and bowing to pressure from the slaughterhouses.

"By granting this eleventh-hour bid by the slaughterhouses to rewrite the law, the USDA is thumbing its nose at Congress. . . ." Markarian said.