U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled they are poised to overturn a California law that requires slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize animals that are too sick to stand up.
Hearing arguments today in Washington, a majority of the court’s nine justices suggested they view the measure as running afoul of federal meat-safety law. The National Meat Association, an industry trade group, is challenging the California law.
“I don’t see how you can argue that you aren’t trenching on the scope” of the federal statute, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said to the state lawyer defending the California measure.
The state law was enacted in 2008 after the Humane Society of the United States released a video of so-called downer cattle being kicked, electrocuted, dragged with chains and rammed with a forklift at a Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. slaughterhouse.
The California law bans slaughterhouses from buying or selling downer animals and from butchering them for human consumption. The measure also requires humane handling of the animals. A San Francisco-based federal appeals court refused to block the law.
Because federal law similarly bans the slaughter of downed cattle for food, the California law would have its greatest impact on the handling of pigs. Under federal law, downed hogs can be slaughtered after they undergo a veterinary check to ensure they aren’t diseased. The hogs also must become ambulatory before they can be slaughtered.
California’s deputy attorney general, Susan K. Smith, argued that the federal law governs only the processing of animals that are going to be used for food, leaving the state free to exclude animals from that category altogether.
She made little headway. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer joined Sotomayor in expressing skepticism about the state’s position.
Scalia pointed to a provision in the Federal Meat Inspection Act that bars states from imposing requirements on slaughterhouses “in addition to” those created by the federal law.
“I don’t know how you can get around the fact that this is an additional requirement,” Scalia said.
Kagan told Smith that California “diverges” from the federal rules by requiring euthanasia of an animal that might otherwise be deemed fit for consumption.
“The California system commands an action that the federal system says may be necessary but may not be,” Kagan said.
The Obama administration argued alongside the meat-industry trade group in urging the court to declare the state law “pre-empted” by the federal statute.
Immediately euthanizing animals that are too sick to stand would be costly to hog farmers and wouldn’t benefit animal health, said Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the Oakland, California-based National Meat Association, in an interview before the argument. Up to 3 percent of hogs develop a fatigue even when there is no disease present, he said.
California’s law is aimed at ensuring that animals are treated humanely, said Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society. Livestock such as hogs that can’t walk may be dragged with chains or otherwise hurt, he said.
Greger said that even hogs who lie down because they’re fatigued may have a higher risk of disease, which may then get into the food supply if they’re slaughtered.
Of the 100 million hogs trucked to slaughter annually in the U.S., 44,000 will be unable to walk, according to the Humane Society and 2008 data from the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board, which does research and promotion of pork.
The case is National Meat Association v. Harris, 10-224.