Supreme Court hears arguments on downed swine

Published on December 15, 2011
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

U.S. Supreme Court justices will decide whether California law can prevent the slaughter of nonambulatory swine within the state.

In National Meat Association v. Harris, the meat industry organization is fighting legislation passed in January 2008 that requires immediate euthanasia of any nonambulatory animal at a federally inspected slaughterhouse. The federal government is supporting the industry's appeal.

The state law was passed in response to footage released in January 2008 that showed abuse of nonambulatory cows at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. The Humane Society of the United States released the video.

Crated pig
An association of meat producers argued before the Supreme Court that swine that become unable to
stand and walk during or after transportation to slaughterhouses should not be automatically removed
from the food supply, as required by a California state law.

The complaint filed by the National Meat Association in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California focuses on the state law's prohibitions on the sale, receipt, or processing of nonambulatory swine or products from such swine within the state. The association argued that federal regulations govern handling of fatigued and stressed swine, which are usually able to stand and walk after rest and supervision and are not disabled because of disease.

While the U.S. District Court judge issued in February 2009 a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law at swine slaughterhouses, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the ruling in March 2010.

The Supreme Court justices will consider whether the appellate court, in ending the injunction, correctly interpreted the scope of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and its potential conflicts with state law, according to court information. The justices will also consider whether the state law conflicts with federal rules requiring observation and disease-related inspection of animals in slaughterhouses as well as whether the California law attempts to pre-emptively regulate federally regulated slaughterhouses.

In oral arguments Nov. 9, Steven J. Wells, an attorney from Minneapolis, argued on behalf of the meat producers association that federal rules govern animal handling, treatment, inspection, and meat quality in slaughterhouses, yet California set different requirements banning the purchase and receipt of animals that federal law deems can be sold.

Benjamin J. Horwich, assistant to the solicitor general for the U.S. Department of Justice, argued in support of the meat producers that federal veterinarians provide the conclusive judgment of fitness of an animal for meat production, and state officials cannot reach different judgments. He said the state rules, by banning sales of nonambulatory animals, effectively tell slaughterhouses how to deal with an animal on their premises.

Susan K. Smith, deputy attorney general for California, argued that the state law's provisions affect only animals and meat from animals withdrawn from the slaughter process, and they don't conflict with federal law that applies to animals in the human food supply chain. She said the state law is intended to protect public health and prohibit animal cruelty by stopping the commerce of nonambulatory animals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all nonambulatory cattle, except veal calves that are tired or cold, must be euthanized.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, attended the hearing and his organization filed an amicus brief. He said that most pigs that are unable to rise when arriving at slaughter plants are fatigued, and they are able to walk again if given time to rest. He said nonambulatory pigs are not connected with additional food safety concerns, particularly because they cannot become infected with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

The AVMA policy "Disabled Livestock" states that nonambulatory swine at slaughterhouses can be allowed up to two hours to recover in the absence of great distress or irreversible conditions.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease," is a progressive, fatal TSE, and consumption of infected cattle products is believed to be connected with new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.