The news story began with a simple declarative sentence:

“A U.S. District Court judge in St. Louis will decide if a meat processor in Gallatin, Mo., can begin slaughtering horses.”

How the story ends is as yet unknown, but for once, some sanity has been injected into the rancorous and polarizing fight over whether horses should be slaughtered here in the United States, under USDA’s watchful eyes, or shipped off elsewhere to meet the same fate, although likely under less desirable circumstances.

Because that’s what the argument is really about: Not whether horses should be slaughtered or whether . . . well, the opponents don’t really articulate what the alternative might be, but they’d like us to imagine a quiet, peaceful death in which the horse is surrounded by both human and equine loved ones, followed by a ceremonious burial with appropriate readings from Scripture.

Truth is, when horses grow old, when owners cannot afford their keep, or when they’ve simply been abandoned, the two choices are whether they will be slaughtered here or in Mexico or Canada. Not whether there any horse plants allowed to operate or not, but simply where in North America we prefer the animals be dispatched.

Right now, as numerous sources have noted, an estimated 175,000 horses are shipped each year to Mexico and Canada for slaughter, with most of the meat exported to Europe and Japan. Even as Valley Meat in New Mexico struggles to re-open as a horse plant, a business owner in Missouri awaits the federal court’s decision on whether a Missouri meat plant can also be permitted to handle horses.

What’s most interesting is that the owner, David Rains, describes himself as a horse owner, and getting into the business of horse slaughter was not necessarily part of some master plan.

“We’re horse people," Rains told KQTV, an ABC affiliate in St. Joseph, Mo. “We have 10 horses of our own we use for riding and catching cows and gathering cows.”

But after his small plant, Rains Natural Meats, was forced to closed last year because of financial struggles, horsemeat emerged a potential alternative. In addition eyeing the export market, Rains told KQTV that there is a “severe problem” with horse overpopulation.

“There are horses that are mean,” he told the station. “There are horses that are past their prime that people can no longer afford to take care of.”

A switch in tactics

According to the story, Rains retrofitted his meat processing plant, which had previously processed cattle, pigs, elk, deer and bison, to handle only horses. And now he awaits the court’s ruling in response to a legal challenge by the Humane Society of the United States, which resulted in a temporary injunction to prevent the plant from opening.

And just in case anyone might be unaware of the balance of power in this court case, HSUS officials were able to quickly post a $500,000 bond last week ordered by the court to keep the temporary injunction in effect, should Rains’ business suffer losses while waiting for a decision that might ultimately go in his favor.

HSUS attorneys argued the bond should not be required because their case is against the federal government and its permitting process, not against companies that were given permission to begin slaughtering horses. They lost on that motion.

A coalition of animal activist groups, including HSUS, got a temporary restraining order issued last month to prevent Valley Meat and Responsible Transportation of Sigourney in Iowa from opening their approved horse plants. However, last week officials with Responsible Transportation announced that they were dropping plans to slaughter horses and would convert their plant to beef processing. Keaton Walker, company president, said his firm cannot afford to wait while the court deliberates.

Meanwhile, HSUS tried to float another issue to muddy the waters further.

“I don’t want to put anybody out of business,” HSUS spokesperson Amanda Good told KQTV. “That’s not my goal. Horse slaughter is completely different from any other animal that’s sent to slaughter. It’s just not safe for human consumption.”

Not sure where Ms. Good gets off using the first-person singular, but her argument obviously attempted to expand consumer concerns to add a food-safety fear to the standard “horses are too beautiful to die” argument.  Specifically, Good cited the use of phenylbutazone, which is used in veterinary medicine to treat such injuries as sprains, tendonitis and laminitis, an inflammation of a horse’s hooves.

“To send animals to slaughter that have received this drug is a great danger to humans,” Good claimed.

However, not only did extensive testing in the U.K during Europe’s horsemeat scandal earlier this year fail to produce any positive findings, but safeguards will be in place to prevent potential residues in horsemeat from entering the food chain.

“Our customers are going to be reassured that there will never be a horse that walks through that plant that has any trace of drug residue in them,” said Sue Wallis, U.S. chair of The International Equine Business Association, in a statement. “They will be required to do a lot more testing in horse plants than they do in any other kind of meat plant.”

In the Missouri case, HSUS also tried to raise the specter of environmental damage—claiming that a lagoon at the plant “would run red with blood”—but since that (alleged) threat is strictly localized to Rains’ waste disposal plans, it’s unlikely to generate any national traction on that issue.

For now, the fate of the Missouri plant—and by extension the larger issue of horse slaughter nationally—is all resting on the decision of the St. Louis District Court.

The court is scheduled to rule on Sept. 5.

Stay tuned.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.