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Supreme Court to hear case on federal preemption of state food safety laws

On November 9, the Supreme Court will hear argument in National Meat Association v. Harris. At stake is whether a state may enact laws designed to protect the food supply when federal regulations do not address the specific issue.

In January 2008, the Humane Society released an 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 processed and sold, leading to 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 (the “Association”) sued to enjoin the law, arguing that it was preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (the “FMIA”). The FMIA was enacted to protect the health of consumers by ensuring that meat for human consumption is wholesome and not adulterated. It sets forth inspection and examination requirements for animals that are intended to be slaughtered for human consumption, including downer animals. The Association argues that provisions of the California law that address slaughterhouse “operations,” are “within the scope” of the FMIA, but “in addition to, or different than” FMIA requirements, and therefore are preempted by the FMIA.

California argues that the state law disqualifies downer animals from being slaughtered for the purpose of human food production. Because downer animals effectively never become part of the slaughterhouse “operations” of human food production, the law is not preempted by the FMIA, which only regulates the processing of animals that are destined for human consumption.

The district court granted the Association’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the California law was preempted by the FMIA, both expressly and by implication.  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

If the Supreme Court rules against California, states will be severely constrained in their ability to protect their residents from the dangers of a contaminated food supply.