U.S. Supreme Court overturns California law requiring downers to be euthanized

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2012:

U.S. Supreme Court overturns California law requiring downers to be euthanized


At all levels of the process, the cruelty in the mass raising and killing of animals for human consumption is heartbreaking.

WASHINGTON D.C.– The U.S. Supreme Court on January 23,  2012 unanimously overturned a 2008 California law requiring slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize non-ambulatory livestock.

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Focused on the issue of federal primacy over state legislation,  the legal reasoning behind the 9-0 verdict signaled that the Supreme Court is likely to favor uniform national standards for livestock handling in any situation where state and federal law are perceived to be in conflict.  This could mean any situation in which states have adopted supplementary humane standards meant to address gaps in federal laws which were last updated by Congress several decades ago.

ABOVE: Video evidence compiled by The Humane Society of the United States shows inhumane handling methods that may have endangered the health of children. A shocking undercover investigation by The Humane Society of the United States reveals widespread mistreatment of “downed” dairy cows—those who are too sick or injured to walk—at a Southern California slaughter plant.

The Supreme Court verdict specifically addressed the handling of non-ambulatory pigs. The California law,  signed by then-California Governor Arnold Schwarz-eneger in July 2008, also prohibits slaughtering downed cattle, sheep,  and goats for human consumption,   but U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2009 issued an executive order that established a similar rule pertaining to cattle at the federal level. Thus the California provisions about handling non-ambulatory cattle were not in dispute.

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The Supreme Court verdict focused on pigs,  but the legal reasoning applied to the handling of pigs would also apply to sheep, goats,  and other livestock upon arrival at slaughterhouses.

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At issue,  Kagan wrote,  was whether the Federal Meat Inspection Act,  which “regulates the inspection,  handling,  and slaughter of livestock for human consumptionŠexpressly preempts a California law dictating what slaughterhouses must do with non-ambulatory pigs. We hold,”  Kagan summarized,  “that the FMIA forecloses the challenged applications of the state statute.”

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Explained Kagan,  “The FMIA regulates a broad range of activities at slaughterhouses to ensure both the safety of meat and the humane handling of animals.  Enacted in 1906,  after Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle sparked an uproar over conditions in the meatpacking industry,”  Kagan recounted,  the FMIA initiated federal meat inspection.  Since 1978 the FMIA has also required slaughterhouses to “comply with the standards for humane handling and slaughter of animals set out in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958,”  which originally governed only slaughterhouses that sell meat to the U.S. government.

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The inspection procedure begins with inspecting animals before they are killed.  “If the inspector finds no evidence of disease or injury,”  Kagan wrote,  “he approves the animal for slaughter.  If the inspector sees that an animal is dead or dying,  comatose, suffering from a high fever,  or afflicted with a serious disease or condition,  he designates the animal as ‘U. S. Condemned.’  A condemned animal (if not already dead) must be killed apart from the slaughtering facilities where food is produced.” No part of the carcass may be sold for human consumption.  “The inspector also has an intermediate option,”  Kagan continued.  “If he determines that an animal has a less severe condition-or merely suspects the animal of having a disease meriting condemnation-he classifies the animal as ‘U. S. Suspect.’  That category includes all nonambulatory animals not found to require condemnation. Suspect livestock must be ‘set apart,’  specially monitored,  and (if not reclassified because of a change in condition) ‘slaughtered separately from other livestock.’ Following slaughter,  an inspector decides at a post-mortem examination which parts,  if any,  of the suspect animal’s carcass may be processed into food for humans.”

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The crux of the legal issue,  Kagan explained,  is that “The regulations implementing the FMIA additionally prescribe methods for handling animals humanely at all stages of the slaughtering process.  Those rules apply from the moment a truck carrying livestock ‘enters,  or is in line to enter,’  a slaughterhouse’s premises. And they include specific provisions for the humane treatment of animals that cannot walk. Under the regulations,  slaughterhouse employees may not drag conscious,  nonambulatory animals, and may move them only with ‘equipment suitable for such purposes.’  Similarly, employees must place nonambulatory animals,  as well as other sick and disabled livestock,  in covered pens sufficient to protect the animals from ‘adverse climatic conditions.’  The FMIA contains an express preemption provision, at issue here, addressing state laws on these and similar matters.  That provision’s first sentence reads: ‘Requirements within the scope of this [Act] with respect to premises,  facilities and operationsŠmay not be imposed by any State.”

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The California law by contrast holds that “No slaughterhouse,  stockyard,  auction,  market agency,  or dealer shall buy,  sell, or receive a non-ambulatory animal;  no slaughterhouse shall process,  butcher,  or sell meat or products of non-ambulatory animals for human consumption; [and] no slaughterhouse shall hold a non-ambulatory animal without taking immediate action to humanely euthanize the animal.”

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The National Meat Association, representing meatpackers and processors in December 2008 sued to block enforcement of the California law,  winning a preliminary injunction.   In March 2010,  however,  Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski lifted the injunction,  calling the NMA contentions “Hogwash.”

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“The FMIA’s preemption clause sweeps widely,”  Kagan wrote for the Supreme Court, “and in so doing,  blocks the applications [of the California law] challenged here.”

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Specifically,  Kagan stipulated,  “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.  At every turn [the California law] imposes additional or different requirements on swine slaughterhousesŠWhere under federal law a slaughterhouse may take one course of action in handling a nonambulatory pig, under state law the slaughterhouse must take another.” Further,  the Supreme Court found,  the California law obliges slaughterhouses to refuse delivery of downed pigs,  but “federal law establishes rules for handling and slaughtering non-ambulatory pigs brought to a slaughterhouse, rather than ordering them returned to sender.” The Supreme Court observed that the National Pork Board estimates that “almost half of one percent of the pigs slaughtered annually in the United States,”  as many as a milllion per year, “become nonambulatory during the trip from farm to slaughterhouse.  About half that many die during transport.”

Horse slaughter

The Supreme Court took note that the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the California law governing the handling of non-ambulatory pigs based in part on the legal reasoning that it earlier used in upholding state prohibitions of horse slaughter.  However,  the Supreme Court found,  “A ban on butchering horses for human consumption works at a remove from the sites and activities that the FMIA most directly governs.  When such a ban is in effect,  no horses will be delivered to,  inspected at,  or handled by a slaughterhouse.”
By contrast,  because “many non-ambulatory pigs become disabled either in transit to or after arrival at a slaughterhouse,” even with the California law in effect,  “a swine slaughterhouse will encounter nonambulatory pigs. In that circumstance,”  the California law “tells the slaughterhouse what to do with those animals. Unlike a horse slaughtering ban,  the statute thus reaches into the slaughterhouse’s facilities and affects its daily activities.”

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Thereby,  the Supreme Court concluded, “The FMIA expressly preempts such a state law. Accordingly,  we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.”

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A footnote to the Supreme Court verdict acknowledged that states may adopt laws governing livestock handling if those laws are consistent with the FMIA,  citing as examples “state laws of general application,”  such as “workplace safety regulations,  building codes,  etc.”  which “usually apply to slaughterhouses.”  Further, Kagan wrote for the court,  “States may exact civil or criminal penalties for animal cruelty or other conduct that also violates the FMIAŠAlthough the FMIA preempts much state law involving slaughterhouses,  it thus leaves some room for the states to regulate.”

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The overturned California law was adopted six months after the Humane Society of the U.S. released undercover video to media of abusive handling of downed cattle at the former Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California.  Amid public outrage,  the slaughterhouse was closed for seven months,  but was sold to American Beef Packers and reopened in September 2008.

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Farm Sanctuary had in 1994 won passage of a California law intended to prohibit abuse of downed livestock,  but the law had been successfully enforced only once.  Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the U.S.,  and the Humane Farming Association,  which had been highly critical of the 1994 law,  joined forces to win passage of the 2008 law.  They disagreed over strategies to defend it,  including the possibility of seeking a legislative amendment to remove the requirements to which the National Meat Association objected.

What the verdict left

The Supreme Court decision is “deeply troubling,”  said HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, “preventing a wide range of actions by the states to protect animals and consumers from reckless practices by the meat industry.”

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“While we are disappointed that the Court has exempted slaughterhouses,”  said HFA national director Brad Miller,  “we are pleased that the rest of the law remains intact–and is still the strongest in the nation.   It is still illegal in California for any entity other than a slaughterhouse,  to buy,  sell,  receive,  or transport non-ambulatory animals, including cattle,  pigs,  goats,  and sheep.”

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The Supreme Court left intact the parts of the California law pertaining to livestock auctions,  stockyards,  farms, and transport vehicles before they arrive at a slaughterhouse. But livestock auctions and stockyards have all but vanished from the major branches of the meat industry.  Effectively prohibiting the sale or transport of downed livestock from farms would require an inspection force large enough and widely distributed enough to inspect livestock on farms before loading for transport to slaughter, instead of at unloading,  the funnel point through which every animal must pass.

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“The only way we can further protect downed animals at federally inspected slaughterhouses is through federal law or federal regulation,”  summarized Animal Welfare Institute farm animal policy associate Rachel C. Matthews.

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New York Member of the House of Representative Gary Ackerman,  a Democrat,  has introduced a bill requiring that downed livestock at slaughterhouses must be promptly euthanized in each of the past four Congresses,  but as of the Supreme Court ruling,  the current Ackerman bill had just 20 cosponsors,  under 10% of the number needed to win passage.

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Longtime American Humane Association Washington D.C. office director Adele Douglass left the AHA toward the end of 2002 and founded Humane Farm Animal Care in February 2003 in the belief that product certification programs and consumer pressure might accomplish more for farmed animals than the pursuit of legislation.
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“The HFAC Certified Humane program prohibits non-ambulatory animals from being transported off the farm for any reason, and requires that they receive veterinary care,  and if necessary, humane euthanasia.  Non-ambulatory animals in the Certified Humane program are not allowed to be slaughtered for food,”  Douglass reminded ANIMAL PEOPLE.

Looking ahead

Meat industry media have indicated that the Supreme Court verdict is likely to be followed by further lawsuits seeking to roll back state livestock handling legislation,  based on similar claims of conflict with federal law.

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For animal advocates,  the 9-0 decision suggested that a change in political tactics may be needed to advance farmed animal welfare bills, after more than a decade of trying to end-run the Congressional influence of agribusiness by using the ballot initiative process in states that allow it,  and by using the threat of a ballot initiative to help move bills through state legislatures.  There is presently no federal legislation governing how laying hens may be kept,  for example,  but such legislation has been passed by initiative in California,  and weaker laws been passed in response to initiative efforts in Michigan,  Oregon and Washington.

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The Humane Society of the U.S. stopped the Oregon and Washington initiative campaigns in July 2011,  which sought stricter standards than were passed by the Oregon and Washington legislatures.  Instead,  HSUS and the industry front United Egg Producers agreed to jointly seek passage of a bill to impose a federal caging standard for laying hens.  The bill was introduced in Congress on January 24,  2012. (See page 1.)
HSUS factory farming campaign manager Paul Shapiro told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the Supreme Court verdict is “certainly a compelling case for federal legal protection for farm animals.”

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“I’m not sure the Supreme Court was thinking about egg issue,  but who knows?” responded Brad Miller of HFA,  who views the proposed federal caging standard as an obstacle to achieving larger improvements on behalf of laying hens.  Assessed Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison in a January 23,  2012 Opinion L.A. blog posting,  “The justices ruled unanimously on the constitutional question that state law can’t be stricter than federal law in some matters.  They didn’t rule on the humane issues or food safety questions,  two of the matters that prompted California’s law.

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“The ultimate answer to any of these practices that occur in the course of slaughtering billions of animals,  whether on family farms or by ritual killing techniques or in mega-slaughterhouses,”  Morrison wrote,  “is also perhaps the best chance of survival of our species too.  It’s a move toward a vegetarian diet.  Meat protein generally consumes more land and water and energy than vegetable protein,  and all of those–land, water and energy–are going to be scarcer and more expensive in the decades to come.”
–Merritt Clifton

Merritt Clifton
Editor, ANIMAL PEOPLE
P.O. Box 960 | Clinton, WA 98236
Telephone: 360-579-2505
Cell: 360-969-0450
Fax: 360-579-2575
E-mail: anmlpepl@whidbey.com
Web: www.animalpeoplenews.org

 

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This entry was posted in ANIMAL BUSINESS, ANIMAL CRUELTY, BOVINES & CATTLE, FACTORY FARMING, MARCH 2012. Bookmark the permalink.