Supreme Court Rules Federal Meat Inspection Act Preempts California’s Ban on Slaughter of Non-Ambulatory Animals

January 26, 2012

By Riëtte van Laack

On Monday, January 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California state law prohibiting the slaughter, processing, and sale of any non-ambulatory animals is preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA”).

As we previously reported, under California's Downed Animal Law, section 599f of the California state penal code, prohibits the slaughter of any non-ambulatory livestock.  This law was adopted in 2008 as a reaction to the publication of an undercover video in 2008, showing workers at the California Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. cattle slaughterhouse dragging sick and disabled cows.  This video resulted in the largest beef recall in U.S. history, and federal regulations prohibiting slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle but not of other non-ambulatory livestock.  California’s law, section 599f, expanded the federal protections provided to non-ambulatory cattle to all non-ambulatory livestock, requiring that these animals must be returned to the farm or immediately euthanized, without examination by a veterinarian. 

Shortly after passing of the California law, the National Meat Association ("NMA") filed a request for an injunction on the grounds that the California law was preempted by the FMIA.  The U.S. District Court granted the injunction. However, the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit upheld California’s right to prohibit slaughter of non-ambulatory pigs, reasoning that a non-ambulatory pig is a different kind of animal and that regulating what kind of animal may be slaughtered fell within the type of regulatory activity typically reserved for states.  According to the Ninth Circuit, just as California had the right to prohibit slaughter of horses, it had a right to prohibit slaughter of non-ambulatory pigs.  NMA petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court's unanimous decision (Docket No. 10-224), Justice Kagan writes that the FMIA regulates a broad range of activities to ensure the safety as well as human handling of animals.  The FMIA contains an express preemption provision in section 678 of the FMIA, which was added in 1967.  Section 678 provides, in relevant part, that “Requirements within the scope of this [Act]  . . . which are in addition to, or different than those made under this [Act] may not be imposed by any State.”  As Justice Kagan explained, this section “prevents a State from imposing any additional or different-even if non-conflicting-requirements that fall within . . . the scope [of the act] and concern slaughterhouse facilities or operations.”  According to the Court, the California law effectively tried to ban slaughterhouse activities that the FMIA and FSIS implementing regulations expressly allow.  As the Court explained, under federal law, non-ambulatory pigs can be slaughtered, processed and sold, subject to FSIS inspection and monitoring requirements.  Thus, the Court concluded, California’s section 599f is preempted by the FMIA. 

Although this case focused on pigs, the ruling applies equally to non-ambulatory sheep, goats and veal calves.

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