California Slaughterhouse Law Struck Down by Top U.S. Court

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law requiring slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize animals that are too sick to stand up, delivering a setback to animal-rights activists and a victory for the meat industry.

The justices today unanimously ruled that the federal government, and not the states, is solely responsible for the rules that govern slaughterhouse operations. California’s law “runs smack into” the federal regulations, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.

The California law would have had its greatest effect on the handling of nonambulatory pigs, which under U.S. law can be used for food with the approval of a federal inspector. Federal law bans the slaughter of downed cattle for food.

“This is a deeply troubling decision, preventing a wide range of actions by the states to protect animals and consumers from reckless practices by the meat industry,” said Wayne Pacelle, president the Humane Society of the United States.

The National Meat Association, the industry trade group that challenged the California law, praised the ruling.

“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 Barry Carpenter, the group’s chief executive officer.

Thousands of Pigs

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 California law was enacted in 2008 after the Humane Society 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, known as Section 599f, banned slaughterhouses from buying or selling downer animals and from butchering them for human consumption. Violators would have been subject to as much as a year in jail and a $20,000 fine.

Kagan said the state measure was pre-empted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

“At every turn Section 599f imposes additional or different requirements on swine slaughterhouses,” Kagan wrote. “It compels them to deal with nonambulatory pigs on their premises in ways that the federal act and regulations do not.”

The Obama administration argued alongside the meat-industry trade group in urging the court to void the state law.

The case is National Meat Association v. Harris, 10-224.

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