Supreme Court Hears 'Downed' Livestock Arguments

Supreme Court Hears 'Downed' Livestock Arguments

Justices seem skeptical about California law.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case involving a California law that bans non-ambulatory livestock, including hogs, from entering the food supply. The law requires non-ambulatory animals at packing plants to be immediately euthanized. The National Pork Producers Council joined with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians in filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court in the case.

NPPC pointed out that, after transport from the farm to the packing plant, hogs can become non-ambulatory from fatigue. With rest, the overwhelming majority of them will walk, and processing them poses no food-safety or public-health risk. The high court was asked by the National Meat Association to find that the Federal Meat Inspection Act pre-empts the state statute.

The California Legislature approved the state law in 2008 after a video was released by the Humane Society of the United States, showing non-ambulatory, or "downed," cows at a California beef packing plant being dragged and prodded to enter the processing line. A federal district court judge blocked the California law, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco last year overturned the lower court ruling.  

During arguments last week, several justices suggested that California went too far to protect animals already regulated by federal law overseen by USDA. Skepticism toward the California law appeared to be widely shared by the justices during the hour-long oral arguments.

"A slaughterhouse worker who is on the premises needs to have one set of rules that the worker follows so that the worker knows that if he follows the advice of a federal inspector ... that the slaughterhouse worker won't go to jail," attorney Steven J. Wells argued Wednesday for the meat association. "Congress has unmistakably ordained that one set of rules govern animal handling and treatment, inspection and determinations of meat quality for sale at federally inspected slaughterhouses."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by June, 2012.

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