The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled against a California law that bans the slaughter of all non-ambulatory animals. The case was known as National Meat Association v. Harris, and included all non-ambulatory livestock—pigs, sheep and goats-- but specifically addressed fatigued hogs.

NMA estimates that 3 percent of U.S. market hogs fall into the fatigued-pig category, following transport. Those animals typically recover if allowed a 30- to 60-minute rest period, and there are no consequences associated with the meat products.

The National Pork Producers Council, along with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the National Farmers Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, argued that the California law would create an animal health risk and criminalizes the work of federal slaughterhouse inspectors. NPPV also has pointed out that the state law could have prevented meat processed in another state that did not adhere to the statute’s ban from being shipped to California.

The case began in 2008, when the California Legislature approved the non-ambulatory slaughter law after an animal-activist’s video showed mishandling of non-ambulatory, or “downed,” cows at a California beef packing plant. The California statute prohibited buying, selling or receiving non-ambulatory animals, as well as processing, butchering or selling meat or products from those animals for human consumption. It required non-ambulatory animals to be immediately euthanized. However, USDA already has regulations forbidding the slaughter of downed cattle as part of its efforts to address Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. That left fatigued hogs as a target.

NMA challenged the California law, and a federal district court judge in California blocked it. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco overturned the lower court ruling in 2010. NMA appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) pre-empts the California law.

The high court agreed with NMA, ruling that the FMIA “expressly pre-empts” the California law’s application to federally inspected swine slaughterhouses. Consequently, it reversed the Ninth Circuit decision and sent the case back to that court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

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

Federal law "regulates slaughterhouses' handling and treatment of non-ambulatory pigs from the moment of their delivery through the end of the meat production process," said Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the court's unanimous opinion. California's law "endeavors to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same place — except by imposing different requirements. The FMIA expressly pre-empts such a state law," she noted.

 “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.”

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court used sound science to determine that animals that are fatigued from being transported are simply tired, not sick as the state of California attempted to allege,” says Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president.

On a related matter, U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), has again introduced legislation to ban all nonambulatory livestock from entering the food system and require that they be euthanized. Known as Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act (H.R. 3704) it would require all livestock that are unable to walk at the slaughter plant to be “humanely euthanized.” While the measure has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday would suggest its prospects are limited.