Supreme Court: Federal Meat Inspection Act preempts California's slaughter ban

WASHINGTON _ The Supreme Court on Monday struck down California’s ban on the slaughter of downed swine, saying the state law strayed too far into federal territory.

In a case closely watched by other states as well as the multibillion-dollar livestock industry, the court unanimously ruled that longstanding federal law pre-empted California’s 2008 measure.

“The California law runs smack into the (federal) regulations,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.

Kagan’s 14-page decision emphasized that the Federal Meat Inspection Act covers a “broad range of activities at slaughterhouses” and that it “expressly” pre-empts the state law.

The California law in question prohibits the slaughter of non-ambulatory pigs, sheep, goats or cattle. These are animals that can't walk because of disease, injury or other causes. The state law further requires that the downed animals be euthanized.

The ruling Monday specifically cited the state provision that covers swine, but the court’s ruling effectively guts the entire state law.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act specifies that a state can't impose slaughterhouse protections "in addition to or different" from the federal requirements. The Oakland, Calif.-based National Meat Association, which represents about 300 companies, including Harris Ranch, Hormel Foods and In-N-Out Burger, argued that the state law violated this pre-emption rule.

“The (federal law) regulates slaughterhouses’ handling and treatment of nonambulatory pigs from the moment of their delivery through the end of the meat production process,” Kagan wrote. “California endeavors to regulate the same thing, at the same time, in the same place _ except by imposing different requirements."

Barry Carpenter, chief executive officer of the National Meat Association, declared in a written statement that "we couldn't be more pleased" with the unanimous ruling. By some ranchers' estimate, the state law would prevent the slaughter of approximately 2.5 percent of their pigs.

The ruling overturns a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had reasoned what while "federal law regulates the meat inspection process; states are free to decide which animals may be turned into meat."

Alaska, Washington and 11 other states sided publicly with California, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce allied itself with the meat association and the livestock industry. The latter is huge. Slaughterhouses in the United States produced more than 24 billion pounds of beef and more than 20 billion pounds of pork during the first 11 months of 2011, Agriculture Department figures show.

In California alone, nearly 3 million swine are slaughtered annually. "We're deeply disappointed, because a strong state statute has been largely nullified," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview. "Congress and the Agriculture Department have been in the grips of the meat lobby for decades, and California tried to step into the breach."

The California law passed after a graphic Humane Society video was released in January 2008. The video depicted brutal treatment of livestock at Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and Westland Meat Co. Inc. in Chino, Calif.

The video showed non-ambulatory cattle being kicked, shocked with electricity, dragged with chains and rammed with forklifts. In some cases, workers motivated cattle by spraying pressurized water into their nostrils.

The resulting outcry triggered the largest beef recall in U.S. history. It also prompted state legislator Paul Krekorian, now a member of the Los Angeles City Council, to write the state's tougher livestock law.

A House of Representatives bill backed by 12 co-sponsors would stiffen federal livestock protections to include downed swine, but Pacelle acknowledged it faces very long odds.


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