NASHVILLE - With cooperation from the state Department of Agriculture, some state legislators are tentatively seeking ways to process horse meat in Tennessee, either for consumption by humans in other nations or animals in zoos.

Up for discussion in the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday was a proposal (HB1428) that sponsor Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said could be the first step toward slaughter and processing of horse meat in Tennessee.

The bill, as revised by an amendment adopted by the committee, calls for the state Department of Agriculture to promulgate rules and regulations for licensing and inspection of "equine slaughter and processing facilities."

The measure also declares that anyone who files a lawsuit against establishing a horse processing plant in the state must post a bond with the court equal to 20 percent of the cost of building the plant. If the bond is not filed, the bill calls for automatic dismissal of the lawsuit. If the lawsuit proceeds and the plaintiff loses, the bond is forfeited.

Niceley said the provision is modeled after a Montana law and is intended to show that the state is "a friendly environment for horse processing" by easing fears that "some fringe radical animal-rights group" will try to stop the building of a facility.

The hope, he said, is that such legislation will help lure a foreign-owned company into locating a horse processing facility in the state, then exporting the meat to countries where horse meat is regularly consumed. Federal law prohibits processing horse meat for sale in the United States.

"This is a first step toward dealing with the problem of the unwanted horse," he said.

Rep. John Litz, D-Morristown, raised the possibility of having a facility in Tennessee that would process horse meat for sale to zoos. He said that zoos in Tennessee are currently importing horse meat from Canada for consumption by carnivores such as lions, tigers and wolves.

Jimmy Hopper, director of regulatory services for the Department of Agriculture, told the committee that federal law would prohibit processing of horses in a plant that also processes cattle or hogs for human consumption.

But he said that, if the facility is solely dedicated to horse processing, it might be legal - at least if the meat were distributed only to zoos within the state. In response to requests from committee members, Hopper said he would research the matter further and report back to the panel next week.