NSAC's Blog

Update: Agriculture & Animal Welfare

February 2, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down California Law on Downed Animals

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case National Meat Association v. Harris that strikes down a California law with requirements for how slaughterhouses handle pigs that cannot walk, referred to in the law as “nonambulatory.”  The California law requires slaughterhouses to take immediate action to humanely euthanize any nonambulatory animal that they are holding.  In addition, under the law, slaughterhouses cannot process, butcher, or sell meat or products of nonambulatory animals for human consumption.

The Court found that the California law was more stringent than the regulations issued by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the authority of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.  Under the federal regulations, a nonambulatory pig is given an initial inspection to determine if it has a severe disease or condition.  If the inspection finds a severe disease or condition, the animal is designated “condemned” and killed apart from the slaughtering facility where food is produced.  Pigs that are not immediately condemned are designated as “suspect.”  They are set aside, monitored, and slaughtered separately from other livestock.  Then a food safety inspector examines the parts of the suspect animal to determine if any parts can processed for human food.

The Court determined that the Federal Meat Inspection Act includes a specific preemption clause that prevents states from imposing requirements within the scope of the Act that are in addition to, or different than, the requirements under the federal Act.  The Court also concluded that the Act’s preemption clause has a wide scope and prohibits states from imposing additional or different requirements even if they do not conflict with the federal Act.  Only states that have established state inspection programs for regulating facilities and operations that produce meat products limited to a market within the state can have more stringent requirements than those of the federal Act.

The Court left for another day the issue of whether the federal Act preempts a provision in the California law that makes it a crime for a slaughterhouse to buy nonambulatory animals at a site off the premises of the slaughterhouse.

Note that the federal law already has more stringent requirements for how nonambulatory cattle, known as “downer” cattle, are handled.  In 2009, USDA issued the regulations requiring that downer cattle be euthanized and banning the processing of the downer cattle for products that enter the food supply.  This regulation was issued in response to a Humane Society video, released in 2008, that showed workers at a California meatpacking plant abusing sick and injured downed cattle in an attempt to get them to walk to the slaughterhouse.  The video also led to the largest meat recall in the U.S., as well as the impetus for California to enact its law for the handling of all nonambulatory animals.

Pending federal legislation on concerning downed animals

Pending federal legislation, the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act (H.R. 3704), would revise the Federal Meat Inspection Act to require that any cattle (including calves), sheep, swine, goats, or horses, mules, or other equines, that will not stand and walk unassisted be immediately and humanely euthanized.  The Act would also require inspectors to condemn the animals, so that they cannot be used for food consumption.  Under the Act, states would be allowed to adopt more stringent measures than allowed under the federal Meat Inspection Act.

Agreement between Humane Society of the U.S. and United Egg Producers

Another animal welfare measure, addressing the housing of egg-producing hens, was introduced in Congress last week.  The bill (H.R. 3798) would amend the Egg Products Inspection Act by significantly increasing the space required per hen and establishing new air-quality standards for hen houses.  Farmers would be given a phase-in period to make required changes.  The bill would also establish standards and requirements for labels on egg packages such as eggs from “free-range” hens and eggs from “cage-free” hens.

The measures in H.R. 3798 would codify many measures included in an agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers.  In return for changes by egg producers, the Society would curtail work on state ballot initiatives intended to achieve the standards state-by-state.  The agreement is supported by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and some other animal welfare groups, the National Consumers League, and state agricultural and egg producer groups, including the Association of California Egg Farmers, Colorado Egg Producers Association, Florida Poultry Association, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, North Carolina Egg Association and Ohio Egg Processors Association.

Some animal welfare organizations are opposed to H.R. 3798.  In addition, the American Farm Bureau Federation opposes the federal bill, along with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the National Milk Producers Federation.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, General Interest

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