The horrors of slaughterhouses were brought home to many Americans in 2007 when undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the United States at a California slaughterhouse showed workers abusing cows who were unable to walk (“downers”) by dragging them with forklifts, using water hoses on them, and shocking them with electric prods. Footage of the video can be seen here. The slaughterhouse was the second largest supplier of meat to the National School Lunch program, and the Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of meat following the release of the video. California responded to this abuse by strengthening a state law relating to downed animals so that any such downed animal in a slaughterhouse is to be humanely euthanized immediately, and their meat shall not be sold for human consumption.
The meat industry has claimed that California’s law conflicts with a federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which requires downed animals to be examined. Under the federal regulations, if an animal shows signs of specified illnesses during the examination, its meat to be destroyed, but otherwise it may be butchered for human consumption. Asserting that the California law is preempted by federal law and that it violates the dormant commerce clause, the National Meat Association brought suit in National Meat Association v. Brown. A district court judge granted an injunction which was overturned by the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court granted certiaori and on November 9, 2011 heard arguments on the case. The decision is expected in a few months, but unfortunately the Court seemed to be leaning towards the meat industry during the arguments.
This case is a classic example of the importance of statute construction, and the Supreme Court has the opportunity to interpret the statutes so as to benefit the large and wealthy meat industry, or to protect ill animals facing inhumane treatment and the health of citizens who might eat their meat. The federal law prohibits states from imposing different requirements in regard to the “premises, facilities, and operations” where federal inspection of animals is provided. The meat industry claims, and the Supreme Court seems to be agreeing, that this preempts California’s statute, but the Ninth Circuit rightly declared that there is a presumption against preemption, especially in light of the fact that states are generally the regulators of slaughterhouses, and so the provision must be interpreted narrowly. The California statute does not regulate the premises of the slaughterhouses or attempt to duplicate federal inspections, but rather simply bans those animals “unable to walk to their deaths” from slaughter at the facilities.
What is extremely troubling is that the meat industry is also contesting the humane handling provision of the California law that prohibits the dragging of unconscious downed animals. Federal guidelines allow such action, as well as the use of forklifts and electric prods on downed animals. Unfortunately even the Ninth Circuit feels that the state regulations on humane handling are in conflict with federal guidelines. It is horrifying that when a state attempts to protect animals in the final stages of their lives, it is thwarted by a industry solely focused on the bottom dollar. Animals have very little protection as it is. The California law attempts to take a step forward to protect those who are too ill to even walk, and in doing so it also protects human health. If the Supreme Court overturns this law, it will simply grant a bloated and inhumane industry more power over billions of animal lives. This is unacceptable. If the Supreme Court holds for the meat industry, then Congress must step up and amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act so as to mirror California’s provisions.