Supreme Court scrutinizes Calif. slaughterhouse rule

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 9- The Supreme Court heard arguments today regarding whether a California state law requiring the immediate euthanization of downed livestock should be overturned. The justices heavily weighed the argument that the California law encroaches on federal law under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), which does not require livestock unable to walk be immediately euthanized. 

“There is one set of rules under FMIA, which kick in at the slaughterhouse gate and continue through sale,” said National Meat Association lawyer, Steven Wells. “California has enacted its own set of rules, different from federal rules. A slaughterhouse worker who is on the premises needs to have one set of rules.”

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The National Meat Association appealed to SCOTUS to repeal the California law passed in 2009. According to the California rule, any livestock that are unable to walk may not be slaughtered for human consumption and must be killed immediately. The law is an attempt to encourage a safe meat supply and the humane treatment of nonambulatory animals, which often become so during the transportation process to the slaughterhouse. 

However, the Supreme Court justices referenced a part of the FMIA several times today, which expresses that state regulations “in addition to, or different than” federal regulations are expressly preempted. The federal rules under FMIA state that slaughterhouses hold animals unable to walk for observation to check for evidence of disease. 

"The federal law does not require me immediately to go over and euthanize the cow. Your law does require me to go over and immediately euthanize the cow,” Justice Stephen Breyer said today. “And therefore, your law seems an additional requirement in respect to the operations of a federally inspected meatpacking facility,". 

The California team argued that the state requirement does not interfere with FMIA because it does not hinder a FMIA inspector's right to conduct post-mortem inspections. It also claims the scope of the FMIA regulates the safety of meat intended for human consumption, while allowing the people of the State of California to impose their moral conditions on the humane treatment of animals being raised for slaughter. 

“There is no ‘additional requirement' under the California law for animals that will become meat,” said California deputy attorney general, Susan Smith. 

Although the California law does not restrict post-mortem inspection for disease, it would result in more losses for slaughterhouses since “most nonambulatory animals will be euthanized for no medical reason,” according to the the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and American Association of Swine Veterinarians. Under federal law, some nonambulatory animals may become ambulatory after some rest and be eligible for slaughter and human consumption.

“When the Federal law says you can, but the state laws say you can't, that is an express preemption of the state law,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. 

California passed the state law regulating the slaughter of “downer” animals after the Humane Society released an undercover video in 2008 showing workers abusing livestock at a Southern California slaughterhouse.

“Eliminating all downed swine from the food supply and any economic benefit that might be derived from them, thus encourages the types of humane treatment recognized by the industry as effective in preventing pigs from experiencing the pain and suffering associated with becoming nonambulatory in the first place,” according briefs in support of the California law.      


A federal district court judge blocked the California law, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco overturned the lower court ruling. The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians filed a brief with the Supreme Court in the case, National Meat Association v. Harris 


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