A California law makes it illegal for the meat industry to use cruel and violent practices to force sick, ‘downed’ animals to slaughter—and thereby into the human food chain. But the meat industry is pushing the United States Supreme Court to strike down the state law. The case, which the high court will hear today, goes beyond animal welfare and raises important questions about industrial meat production and food safety in the U.S.
In 2008, a Humane Society of the United States investigation found ‘rampant animal cruelty’ at a California slaughterhouse. Workers at the plant, which supplies beef to America’s National School Lunch Program and programs for the elderly and low-income families, were videotaped abusing ‘downed’ cows, those who are too sick or injured to walk. The employees kicked cows, poked them with the blades of a forklift, jabbed them in eyes, and shocked them with electrical currents to try and force the downed cows onto their feet and through the slaughter line. This kind of activity is problematic even if you can’t muster sympathy for the downed livestock. The link between downed cows and mad cow disease is firmly established. Animals too sick to walk on their own have no place in the human food supply.
Following the HSUS report, California enacted a law prohibiting the ‘sale, receipt or slaughter’ of any downed livestock, requiring them instead to be immediately euthanized. But the National Meat Association objected, filing a lawsuit in federal district court and winning an injunction in 2009 that prohibited the law from taking effect. The NMA argues that California’s is preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. The doctrine of federal preemption declares that federal law is supreme over conflicting state law—i.e., it ‘preempts’ it. The meat industry specifically defends its prerogative to slaughter downed pigs, which it says often lie down in the slaughter line just because they’re tired.
While federal regulations ban downed cattle from the food supply, they currently permit downed pigs to be slaughtered for meat. But Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org says downer pigs and sheep are also a public health risk.
Downed pigs have been found to have 16 times the odds of antibioti resistant Campylobacter infection, the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning in the United States.
[...] Even if one doesn’t eat meat, more than half of downer pigs tested in the Midwest were found to be actively infected with swine flu, both the classic swine flu virus and the triple hybrid mutant that led to the 2009 human pandemic that killed more than ten thousand Americans.
An unequivocal ban on the slaughter of downed animals for human consumption would remove the incentive for the meat industry to transport and torment these animals rather than euthanize them, and thereby bolster the safety of the food supply. Sick animals can lead to sick people.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit called the meat lobby’s case ‘hogwash,’ using the analogy that “federal law may establish fireworks safety standards, but that doesn’t preclude states from banning fireworks.” Just because federal law only establishes certain livestock standards doesn’t mean states can’t go above and beyond that and exclude certain kinds of animals from the slaughtering process entirely, the judge opined.
Constitutional lawyer Elizabeth B. Wydra, writing at the Huffinton Post, notes:
While the federal government certainly could prescribe a national humane treatment law that would trump any state livestock treatment law, it simply hasn’t done so. Just as many states have banned for ethical reasons the slaughter and sale of horses or household pets for meat consumption, so, too, should states be able to say that “downed” animals that will likely experience extreme suffering should be excluded from meat processing and humanely euthanized instead.
“This isn’t just an animal-rights issue,” Wydra concludes, “it’s about making sure our courts are not bending the Constitution to suit the desires of corporate America. It’s time to Occupy the Barnyard.”
Photo: Humane Society