updated 2/7/2006 1:24:39 PM ET 2006-02-07T18:24:39

Horse slaughter for meat will continue in the United States, despite votes in Congress to halt the practice, the Agriculture Department announced Tuesday.

American horse meat is sold mostly for human consumption in Europe and Asia, although some goes to U.S. zoos.

Congress didn’t ban horse slaughter outright. Instead, lawmakers used a tactic that is common in spending legislation. Horses must pass inspection by department veterinarians before they are slaughtered, so lawmakers voted to yank the salaries and expenses of those inspectors.

Department officials maintain the law requires inspections regardless. They announced Tuesday they will pay for live horse inspections by charging fees to slaughter plants.

Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., denounced the decision, saying that “commerce and greed have ruled the day.”

“To end this practice, Congress, with widespread public support, passed this amendment by a landslide vote in both the House and the Senate,” said Sweeney, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “This action is a direct defiance of congressional intent.”

The department acted on requests from slaughter plants, two in Texas and one in Illinois, which said their communities could be facing $41 million in losses.

Compared to the huge beef, pork and poultry industries, horse meat is a tiny business: Plants slaughtered about 88,000 horses, mules and other equines in 2005, according to the department.

In letters to Sweeney and other lawmakers last month, department lawyer James Michael Kelly pointed out Congress did not address other elements of the inspection system.

After live animals are examined and slaughtered, the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires separate inspections of carcasses and of meat. Lawmakers did not prohibit those inspections, Kelly said. He added that a separate law allows fee-for-service inspections for more exotic animals, such as bison, deer, elk or rabbits.

The new fee system will go into effect on March 10, the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said Tuesday. The agency will accept public comments on the system through March 9.

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