Horses could soon be butchered in the U.S. for human consumption, now that Congress has lifted a five-year-old ban on funding horse meat inspections. Slaughterhouses could be up and running in a month.

Cheri White Owl, founder of Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, in Guthrie, Okla., Tuesday with one of the 33 horses she is caring for. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The USDA now says a slaughterhouse could open, however, to conduct inspections on meat that would be shipped to European and Asian countries, according to the AP.

Horse meat is a major staple in only eight countries, with China, Mexico and Kazakhstan at the top of the list, but those eight consume about 4.7 million horses a year, according to

Historians say that wild horses were once a major source of protein in the human diet, because the meat was sweet, tender, low in fat and high in protein. But as Western countries began to use horses for transportation and companionship, they were given “pet status,” and eating horsemeat became taboo.

Activists say they are split on federal lawmakers lifting the ban. ASPCA says they will protest any new slaughterhouses, calling it a “heartbreaking development.” Other critics point out that lawmakers lifted the ban in part because of the recession.

PETA, however, argues that the ban had increased horse neglect and abandonment, as ranchers would haul horses to Mexico and Canada since they couldn’t be inspected stateside. PETA plans to support the lifting of the ban short-term, until a nationwide ban on horse slaughter can be passed. A petition to President Obama to impose that nationwide ban can be found here.