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Corporate Court Rules for Industry in Slaughterhouse Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision (.pdf download) in National Meat Association v. Harris, holding that a California state law requiring the humane handling of sick or disabled animals destined for slaughter was preempted by the federal law governing slaughterhouses.

In January 2008, the Humane Society released undercover video depicting sick and disabled cows (“downer” or “non-ambulatory” animals) being beaten, kicked, shocked, and dragged by forklifts and chains on their way to slaughter. In addition to raising concerns about animal welfare, the video inspired grave concerns about the safety of the food supply. Downer animals are much more susceptible to contracting and passing on the E. coli virus, mad cow disease, and salmonella, all of which pose severe health threats to humans. In fact, it later emerged that meat from those same animals had been part of the largest beef product recall in United States history.

The California State Legislature subsequently amended existing California laws governing slaughterhouses, to prohibit purchasing, selling, receiving, processing, or butchering of “nonambulatory” or “downer” pigs, sheep, goats or cattle, and requiring that such animals be immediately and humanely euthanized. The National Meat Association sued to enjoin the law, arguing that it was preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (the “FMIA”).

The FMIA was first enacted in 1906, in the wake of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat industry, The Jungle. FMIA is a comprehensive set of regulations governing the slaughtering process, designed to protect the health of consumers by ensuring that meat for human consumption is wholesome and not adulterated. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled for California, holding that the state law did not conflict with the FMIA’s regulation of slaughterhouse activities, because its effect was to exclude certain types of animals from the slaughtering process all together.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Kagan, reversed the Ninth Circuit, finding the state law to be expressly preempted by the FMIA. The Court held that “[t]he FMIA regulates slaughterhouses’ handling and treatment of nonambulatory pigs from the moment of their delivery through the end of the meat production process,” and California’s law “endeavors to regulate the same thing, at the same time, in the same place—except by imposing different requirements.” Accordingly, the Court struck down the state law as preempted, thus undermining California’s efforts to ensure humane and safe handling of animals destined for slaughter.

As a result of the Court’s decision, it will be easier for potentially contaminated meat to get into California grocery stores, and more difficult for all states to protect the public health through the regulation of the food supply.