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.”