Supreme Court strikes down Calif. slaughter rules

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swineThe U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in January that the state of California cannot prohibit the slaughter of pigs that become disabled at federally inspected slaughter facilities.

The state also cannot bar those slaughterhouses from buying or accepting swine that cannot walk on arrival.

The decision delivered by Justice Elena Kagan states that the Federal Meat Inspection Act prohibits states from imposing their own requirements on slaughterhouse premises, facilities, or operations that are governed by the federal act. The ruling states that the federal act governs "slaughterhouses' handling and treatment of nonambulatory pigs from the moment of their delivery through the end of the meat production process," yet a California law aimed to regulate "the same thing, at the same time, in the same place—except by imposing different requirements."

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service conducts inspections at about 6,200 slaughter facilities. More than 99 percent of hogs slaughtered in the U.S. during 2011 were slaughtered at federally inspected facilities, producing about 22.6 billion of the nation's 22.8 billion pounds of pork, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The California law, which was passed in June 2008, would have required euthanasia of any animal that was at a federally inspected slaughter facility and unable to walk, and would have prohibited any part of the animal from being sold as human food. It also would have prohibited those facilities from buying or receiving such nonambulatory animals.

The National Meat Association had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to prevent enforcement of the California act against swine slaughterhouses. The trade organization argued that federal law allows slaughter facilities to set swine aside for monitoring if they are temporarily disabled because of stress or fatigue, and the federal law doesn't allow states to impose additional requirements on processing and inspection.

The district court granted a preliminary injunction, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision with a ruling that the state law affected only which types of animals could be slaughtered, rather than the inspection or slaughter processes. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision.

Court documents note that California legislators had passed the law in response to the release of secretly recorded video that showed abuse of disabled cows at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. The Humane Society of the United States released that footage in January 2008, and it led to a recall of more than 140 million pounds of beef.

USDA regulations passed since the recall require euthanasia of cattle that become disabled at slaughter facilities, with the exception of calves that are tired or cold.

The HSUS had supported state authorities in the court case and responded to the Supreme Court ruling with a statement calling for the meat industry and federal government to "crack down on abuses of downed animals and take away the incentive for producers to torment animals unable to stand or walk." The organization said federal animal handling and food safety laws are insufficient, and the Supreme Court ruling reduced states' ability to promote food safety and animal welfare.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said his organization supports the federal rules on swine handling and the Supreme Court ruling. He noted that the federal government requires inspection of nonambulatory pigs, and USDA inspectors can hold the animals for further examination or immediately euthanize them if they are found to be unfit for human consumption.

"Overall, there really isn't any public health risk with nonambulatory pigs at slaughter," Dr. Burkgren said. "Fatigued hogs pose no threat to food safety."