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Supreme Court Blocks California’s Downer Livestock Law

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law on Monday that required the euthanization of downer livestock, to promote animal welfare and keep them out of the food supply.

In 2009, California enacted a ban on selling or slaughtering downer, or lame animals unable to walk, in response to undercover footage showing animal handlers abusing cows — forcefully dragging and forklifting non-ambulatory animals — in a San Bernadino County slaughterhouse. The video, released by the Humane Society, sparked consumer outrage and led to the nation’s largest-ever meat recall.

Non-ambulatory cows are at a higher risk for BSE, or mad cow disease. The packer caught prodding downed animals into slaughter had also been supplying the National School Lunch Program.

California’s law required meat processors to remove downed animals — including pigs, goats, and sheep — from the herd and euthanize them immediately. Federal law currently only prevents downer cows from being slaughtered.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act prohibits state regulation that goes above and beyond, or is different from the law, which has ruled over the meat industry since the beginning of the 20th century. The National Meat Association challenged the California’s law, on behalf of pork producers, and a federal judge in Fresno, CA struck down the slaughter ban. The decision was later reversed by the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco. The judge called the lower opinion “hogwash.”

In its decision released this week, the Supreme Court noted that the federal meat inspection law “expressly pre-empts” the California law’s application to federally inspected pork facilities.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling affirms the supremacy of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and USDA’s role in regulating meat process plants,” said NPPC President Doug Wolf, a hog farmer from Lancaster, WI. “It also recognized that non-ambulatory hogs with proper recovery time and veterinary oversight do not need to be condemned immediately in all cases.”

Animal rights advocates argue that the California law would promote humane treatment and keep sick, weak animals out of the food supply. According to NMA, around 3 percent of pigs are non-ambulatory, or unable to walk, when they show up to the slaughterhouse.

“Non-ambulatory hogs that are allowed to recover pose no food-safety risk to the public,” Wolf said. “Such pigs are inspected by USDA inspectors and veterinarians regarding their fitness for processing and entering the human food supply, and strong regulatory safeguards for humane treatment in the processing of animals already exist.”

© Food Safety News
  • Marge Mullen

    “Non-ambulatory hogs that are allowed to recover pose no food-safety risk to the public,” Wolf said. “Such pigs are inspected by USDA inspectors and veterinarians regarding their fitness for processing and entering the human food supply, and strong regulatory safeguards for humane treatment in the processing of animals already exist.”
    Sounds like the same lies we hear about Horse Slaughter!!

  • DJ

    Downers not posing a potential health hazard is ‘Hogwash’. Obviously, the Supreme Court is not concerned with the safety of our food supply, or the health of the American people. Too bad they can’t be recalled, and replaced with justices who might put the health and safety of many, before the profits for a few.

  • Allen

    @ DJ
    Last time I checked the Supreme Court is made up of Americans- they eat the same food we all do. One day they just might be hoisted on their own petard- fitting justice indeed.

  • Karin

    This is an easy one, and I am sure the animal welfare industry is already working on it. If the Federal Meat Inspection Act only prevents downer cows from being slaughtered, then it needs to be rewritten to include ALL animals. And that means chickens and turkeys as well as pigs, goats, and sheep. Let’s view this as an opportunity to change federal laws to the benefit of all animals. And while we are at it, we should pull all subsidies these factory farms are receiving. There is no reason that an industry that so obviously ignores consumer health issues just to make more money should benefit from our tax dollars.
    At times, I am amazed at how shortsighted these industries and industry associations are.

  • PB

    If I read this right, the Supreme court did not express an opinion on the merits of the law but that the law in California is in violation of a federal law. The federal law, as it appears to be written, prohibits the states from enacting regulations that are different from those used at all federally regulated facillities. What would happen if a state tried to make a law stating that no meat needs to be inspected? The courts do not make the laws they are tasked to enforce them. Put the pressure on the lawmakers (congress) to quit putting the pack money in there pockets and write regulations that make sense. Somewhere along the way our politicians forgot that they work for all of us not just the ones who give the highest donations.

  • Sue McLeod

    Good to see the supreme court aka the Obama administration acting in our best interests (not). Once again they have proved that they are bought and paid for just like the Republicans.

    • rinths laby

      @Sue, be reasonable. Obama nominated exactly 2 of the 9 justices. I’m disappointed with the outcome but if all the justices, sensible and insane, voted the same way I am satisfied that  the state of CA had no legal power to supercede federal law. 

  • Steve

    That’s the first time I’ve heard the Supreme Court Judiciary equated with being part of the Executive Branch (not)…
    But as we’re seeing with recent rulings such as Citizen’s United, the Supreme’s have a particularly corporation-friendly outlook that certainly do not serve real persons’ interests.

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com jmunsell

    When I sold my USDA-inspected slaughter plant in 2005, I had run it for 34 years. Most of that time, the Downer prohibition was not yet in force, and in fact, we killed and processed many crippled animals, some of which were downers. One of my crew or I physically inspected all such animals for severity of physical condition upon their arrival at the plant, and we rejected some of them, refusing them admission into the establishment.
    Before you hang me, let me explain something. In almost all cases, a rancher would call and tell me that one bull had hit another bull’s hind quarter [don't mess with my harem], either dislocating the hip or breaking a leg. In most cases, the now 3-legged animal could ambulate and step up into a horse trailer. However, some would fall on the trip into town, and could not stand again upon arrival at my facility. The other most frequent example was the owner of the local livestock auction market would call, explaining that an animal just offloaded from a truck or being loaded into a truck fell, and broke a leg, asking if he could immediately bring the animal to my slaughter plant.
    In both cases, the injured animal is not diseased, so there is no danger of diseased/contaminated meat entering the food chain. Also, when accidents are very recent, and when such an animal is quickly processed, fever has little time to spike. In all such cases the USDA inspector did monitor and record the temperature of the animal before being allowed to be processed. If the temp was too high (extremely rare), the animal could not be slaughtered.
    In the examples above when the inspector allowed the animal to be processed, kill floor personnel would remove all meat around the impacted area. In worst case scenarios, an entire leg might be removed……all under the watchful eye of the USDA Inspector. Any meat with bruises or blood clots was totally trimmed off and destroyed. All of the rest of the meat was perfectly healthy, in the total absence of disease or contamination. Bulls were the typical animal involved. Bulls are large, and frequently produced 500 – 1000 lbs of lean boneless meat on them. In such cases, I respectfully suggest that such well-trimmed and undiseased meat be allowed to enter the food chain, especially when the livestock owner requests that the meat be processed for his/her own home freezer.
    Fully-trained USDA inspectors and veterinarians are continuously present on kill floors at USDA and state-inspected plants. They are fully trained to closely scrutinize every aspect of kill floor protocol, wielding the authority to reject an entire animal when diseased animals present themselves. They are especially vigilant when crippled/broken-legged animals arrive on the premises. We need to provide opportunity for agency inspection force to make common sense decisions in such cases, and to utilize their training skills.
    Admittedly, every industry has its sour apples, including the livestock industry and meat packers. Every other industry as well. To mandate immediate euthanization of downer animals might sound good, but in many cases, this broad paint brush of euthanization prohibits livestock owners from accessing some perfectly good meat out of a recently-injured (not diseased) animal.
    I’m sure I’ll now have a plethora of detractors. Blogs like this can be useful when all sides have the opportunity to tactfully state their perceptions. Let me know if you think I am wrong.
    John Munsell

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com John Munsell

    When I sold my USDA-inspected slaughter plant in 2005, I had run it for 34 years. Most of that time, the Downer prohibition was not yet in force, and in fact, we killed and processed many crippled animals, some of which were downers. One of my crew or I physically inspected all such animals for severity of physical condition upon their arrival at the plant, and we rejected some of them, refusing them admission into the establishment.
    Before you hang me, let me explain something. In almost all cases, a rancher would call and tell me that one bull had hit another bull’s hind quarter [don't mess with my harem], either dislocating the hip or breaking a leg. In most cases, the now 3-legged animal could ambulate and step up into a horse trailer. However, some would fall on the trip into town, and could not stand again upon arrival at my facility. The other most frequent example was the owner of the local livestock auction market would call, explaining that an animal just offloaded from a truck or being loaded into a truck fell, and broke a leg, asking if he could immediately bring the animal to my slaughter plant.
    In both cases, the injured animal is not diseased, so there is no danger of diseased/contaminated meat entering the food chain. Also, when accidents are very recent, and when such an animal is quickly processed, fever has little time to spike. In all such cases the USDA inspector did monitor and record the temperature of the animal before being allowed to be processed. If the temp was too high (extremely rare), the animal could not be slaughtered.
    In the examples above when the inspector allowed the animal to be processed, kill floor personnel would remove all meat around the impacted area. In worst case scenarios, an entire leg might be removed……all under the watchful eye of the USDA Inspector. Any meat with bruises or blood clots was totally trimmed off and destroyed. All of the rest of the meat was perfectly healthy, in the total absence of disease or contamination. Bulls were the typical animal involved. Bulls are large, and frequently produced 500 – 1000 lbs of lean boneless meat on them. In such cases, I respectfully suggest that such well-trimmed and undiseased meat be allowed to enter the food chain, especially when the livestock owner requests that the meat be processed for his/her own home freezer.
    Fully-trained USDA inspectors and veterinarians are continuously present on kill floors at USDA and state-inspected plants. They are fully trained to closely scrutinize every aspect of kill floor protocol, wielding the authority to reject an entire animal when diseased animals present themselves. They are especially vigilant when crippled/broken-legged animals arrive on the premises. We need to provide opportunity for agency inspection force to make common sense decisions in such cases, and to utilize their training skills.
    Admittedly, every industry has its sour apples, including the livestock industry and meat packers. Every other industry as well. To mandate immediate euthanization of downer animals might sound good, but in many cases, this broad paint brush of euthanization prohibits livestock owners from accessing some perfectly good meat out of a recently-injured (not diseased) animal.
    I’m sure I’ll now have a plethora of detractors. Blogs like this can be useful when all sides have the opportunity to tactfully state their perceptions. Let me know if you think I am wrong.
    John Munsell

  • Janet Jones

    not taking sides here, so, please no flaming:
    thank you, mr. munsell, for taking the time to share your experience and knowledge.