High court weighs slaughterhouse law

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California regulations could cause nationwide inconsistencies

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A debate over slaughterhouse rules in California heard this week by the U.S. Supreme Court may have considerable implications for the states' power to regulate the treatment of livestock.

Oral arguments before the nation's highest court centered on a 2009 California law enacted after a video depicting the abuse of non-ambulatory "downer" cattle was made public by an animal rights group.

The statute, which made it illegal for meat packers to buy, hold or slaughter any animal that's unable to walk or stand, was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

Opponents claim that the California law threatens to undermine the uniformity of nationwide slaughterhouse regulations.

Proponents say the law pertains to animal welfare concerns over which California and other states should have jurisdiction.

During oral arguments on Nov. 9, several Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical of California's claims that the state law was not preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which governs slaughterhouse operations.

Justice Elena Kagan said the state's requirement that non-ambulatory swine be immediately euthanized is "exactly where the California system diverges from the federal system, because under the federal system you separate the animal out and then you take a look at it and then you decide whether than animal can continue to go through the process and eventually become meat ... "

Justice Antonin Scalia questioned California's argument that its law doesn't impose different regulations on federally inspected slaughterhouses than those mandated by USDA.

"I don't know how you get around the fact that this is an additional requirement," he said.

The National Meat Association, a trade group, argued that the operations of slaughterhouses across the country are subject to the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

The group claims that hogs become unable to stand due to stress and other factors, but can later become ambulatory if they're held for observation and allowed to rest per federal regulations.

California's law requires slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize all downer livestock, including hogs.

By criminalizing the holding and observation process, the statute interferes with USDA procedures and thus is preempted by federal law, according to the group.

The federal government sided with the National Meat Association during oral arguments, saying the handling of livestock within the premises of a slaughterhouse is up to the USDA.

"States can't tell slaughterhouses how to do that when there is a federal regulation on the subject," said Benjamin Horwich, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department.

The state of California countered that its law doesn't affect the federal inspection of slaughterhouse operations, but simply regulates the type of animals processed at those facilities.

Susan Smith, deputy attorney general for the state, argued that California's law doesn't add to federal meat packing regulations -- rather, it simply excludes certain animals from that process.

"It commands an action, but it's not within the scope of the (federal) act, because at the very outset California is saying that these animals are not to be part of the meat supply system," she said.

The "disqualification of 'downer' animals is analogous to a state's disqualification of the use of dogs, cats, pets or horses for human consumption," according to a brief filed by California.

California's position was supported by 13 states and the District of Columbia, which filed a court brief alleging the National Meat Association has "mounted an attack" against a legal principle that protects the "states' continued ability to exercise their police powers to regulate for the public health and safety."

The Supreme Court should stick to the legal principle known as "presumption against preemption" -- federal law should not be presumed to supersede state laws unless Congress clearly states it should do so, the brief said.

It's important for this concept to be preserved because "animal welfare is an arena the states traditionally have occupied, having regulated against animal cruelty longer and more comprehensively than the federal government," the brief said.

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