The Supreme Court is considering whether a California ban on slaughtering so-called “downer” pigs overstepped existing federal meat inspection laws.
Though several justices reportedly noted the good intentions behind the state law, the majority voiced concern about state overreach, indicating the court may rule in favor of the pork industry, which is backed up on this issue by the Obama administration.
“So when the federal law says you can” sometimes sell the meat of downed animals, Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly said during oral argument Wednesday, “That preempts the rule from the states that says you can’t.”
California initiated the ban, penal code 599f, in 2009 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.
The state responded with a law, which requires meat processors to remove downed animals from the herd and euthanize them immediately, making holding, buying, selling, or butchering downed animals illegal. Animal rights advocates argue the law promotes humane treatment and keeps sick, weak animals out of the food supply.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act prohibits state regulation that goes above and beyond, or veers from, the act, which has ruled over the meat industry since the beginning of the 20th century.
A federal judge in Fresno, CA struck down the slaughter ban, but the decision was reversed by the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco. The judge called the lower opinion “hogwash.”
The National Meat Association points out that the last time the Supreme Court reviewed the issue of uniformity in meat inspection, Jones v. Rath Packing Co. in 1977, it ruled that additional restrictions imposed in California were preempted by federal law.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has seen fit to review this important case, and we particularly appreciate the supporting arguments presented by the Solicitor General’s office on behalf of the United States. We look forward to the Court’s decision, which we hope and believe should be favorable,” said National Meat Association CEO Barry Carpenter after oral argument Wednesday.
A ruling is expected in a few months.