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Supreme Court seems ready to block California law that requires euthanization of ‘downer’ livestock

The Supreme Court seemed ready Wednesday to block a California law that would require slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize livestock that cannot walk to its own demise.

A clear majority of justices seemed to agree with the National Meat Association that California’s 2009 law would violate a federal statute that sets national standards for meat safety and gives its inspectors the final word on what to do about “nonambulatory” livestock.

California passed its law after the Humane Society of the United States released a video of so-called downer livestock being shocked and dragged by slaughterhouse workers.

The law bans slaughterhouses from buying, butchering or selling downer livestock for human consumption, and calls for immediate euthanization.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), however, provides for a federal inspector to determine whether a nonambulatory animal is fit for human consumption.

Most affected by the California law would be swine, because a separate federal rule aimed at curbing “mad cow disease” calls for the euthanization of downer cattle.

Nonambulatory pigs, the meat association said in its brief, may not necessarily be diseased but reacting to the trip to the slaughterhouse.

“The vast majority of nonambulatory pigs are merely overheated, stressed, fatigued, or stubborn and, if allowed to rest, will stand and walk unassisted,” it said.

An inspector may then decide if it can become part of the nation’s food supply.

The meat association and the federal government said California’s law removes the option of the inspection.

They said the law’s directives are expressly forbidden by language in the FMIA that says a state may not impose requirements “in addition to, or different than” the federal requirements.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the law was permissible.

But Susan K. Smith, the state’s deputy attorney general, had a much harder time with the justices.

She contended that California’s law did not violate the federal act because the state “is not regulating animals that are going to be turned into meat.” In effect, she said, the state was removing livestock before the federal requirements kicked in.

But Justice Elena Kagan said California’s law “diverges” from the federal system because of its requirement that downer animals be immediately euthanized, rather than evaluated.

“Under the federal system, you separate the animal out and then you take a look at it and then you decide whether that animal can continue to go through the process and eventually become meat or whether you euthanize it.” Kagan said.

“So the California system commands an action that the federal system say may be necessary but may not be,” she said.

Smith insisted that her state’s law dealt only with animals “outside the scope” of the federal law, which led to some impatience on the part of several justices.

Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the federal law “says in so many words, ‘no additional requirements.’ And I don’t know how you can get around the fact that this is an additional requirement.”

Steven J. Wells, representing the association, said Congress believes federal authorities must be in charge of meat quality “from California to Maine, and those rules kick in at the slaughterhouse gate and they continue through the sale of the meat by the slaughterhouse.”

He said California’s law could mean that a slaughterhouse worker could go to jail for complying with federal standards.

The case is National Meat Association v. Harris .

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.


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