California slaughter law overturned

Jan 27, 2012

For more articles like this, subscribe to the WLJ!

The Supreme Court released its unanimous decision in favor of the National Meat Association (NMA) in NMA v. Harris last week, a case determining that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) preempts a 2008 California law whose requirements differ from and add to federal law and regulations.

The original 2008 state law made it illegal for slaughterhouses in California to take any nonambulatory animals. Any animal that could not stand on its own had to be euthanized and destroyed, overruling any federal inspection the animal may have passed.

But the court’s 9-0 decision determined that Congress had already adopted its FMIA, and California was not free to enforce differing rules or standards. Justice Elena Kagan wrote that “the California law runs smack into” the federal regulations.

“We couldn’t be more pleased that the Supreme Court not only found in favor of our very clear and reasonable arguments, but that they did so unanimously,” said NMA CEO Barry Carpenter.

The proposed law encroached on the FMIA, which already sets out rules by which slaughterhouses can operate, according to NMA’s attorneys.

A preemption clause was added to the FMIA by Congress in 1967. As the court points out in its opinion written by Kagan: “The clause prevents a State from imposing any additional or different —even if non-conflicting— requirements that fall within the scope of the Act and concern a slaughterhouse’s facilities or operations. And at every turn 599f imposes additional or different requirements on swine slaughterhouses: It compels them to deal with nonambulatory pigs on their premises in ways that the federal Act and regulations do not.”

The four-year-old case fueled animal activist groups’ quest to add more regulations to an industry already bogged down with more than its share. In addition, the case created state and federal government conflict.

California wanted state legislation in place that would ban the slaughter of nonambulatory animals.

The California legislation was introduced in 2008 after the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) produced videos from Chino’s Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. showing abuse of nonambulatory cattle. The video prompted the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, temporary closure of the plant, and animal cruelty charges against the employees involved.

Ironically, there were no charges filed against the HSUS employee who videotaped the abuse. And even more disturbing was the fact that HSUS sat on the video for four months before turning it over to authorities.

The Supreme Court’s ruling has animal activist groups, including HSUS, now pushing hard on a federal bill.

Wayne Pacelle, president of HSUS, said in an interview that the organization was “deeply disappointed” with the ruling. “Congress and the Agriculture Department have been in the grips of the meat lobby for decades, and California tried to step into the breach,” he said.

Pacelle said the group’s hope is now placed on federal bill HR 3704, the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act, intro duced in Congress in mid- December.

“This ruling places the matter squarely in the Congress and USDA to take meaningful action to protect animals unable to walk, and prevent the food safety threats that arise from these animals,” Pacelle said. “But it’s a very tall hill to climb because of the power of the meat industry in D.C.”

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-NY, introduced the legislation which, like the California law, would ban all nonambulatory livestock from entering the food system and require that they be euthanized. If passed, the bill would amend the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act of 1958.

In 2004, USDA banned nonambulatory beef and dairy cattle from entering the food supply as part the federal government’s BSE prevention program. It was extended further in 2009 when USDA banned the slaughtering of downed cattle, forcing them to be euthanized.

Ackerman contends that H.R. 3704 would protect the U.S. food supply from illnesses such as BSE. However, Ackerman’s bill would include slow and fatigued hogs, which make up the majority of non-ambulatory hogs that occur at market. As the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) points out, those hogs typically recover when allowed a short period (20 to 30 minutes) of rest.

“There is no food-safety risk with processing such hogs, and all non-ambulatory or fatigued hogs are inspected by USDA Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors and veterinarians for their fitness for processing and entering the human food supply,” NPPC points out. “Banning fatigued hogs would create disposal issues and affect the supply of pork products in the United States.”

Ackerman’s measure has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, where it is pending. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor