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January 28, 2012

3 minutes read

Striking Down Animal Welfare

A law preventing one of the most egregious forms of animal abuse in contemporary agriculture has just been overturned in California. The law, which Farm Forward has supported in California and other states, has protected the public from consuming meat from “downed” or “nonambulatory” animals—animals that are so sick or injured that they cannot stand or walk without assistance.1 On January 23, 2012, the US Supreme Court struck down the law, dealing a serious blow to animal welfare.

The California law required nonambulatory animals arriving at a slaughterhouse to be euthanized immediately, and prevented workers from using abusive means to move the animals.2 The law prohibited California slaughterhouses from either buying or selling nonambulatory livestock, including pigs, cows, sheep and goats. (Chickens and turkeys were not included,3 though the same problems with illness and injury are present in the poultry industry).4

California passed the law in response to a video released by The Humane Society of the United States in 2008. Filmed at a California slaughterhouse, the video captured employees attempting to get downed cows to walk by kicking, electrocuting, and dragging them with chains, as well as spraying pressurized water into their noses to simulate drowning.5

The video triggered the largest recall of beef in the history of the United States.6 Most of the recalled beef had already been consumed, and about 50 of the 143 million pounds had gone to The National School Lunch Program.7

Disturbingly, meat from downed animals is more likely to be diseased for two reasons. First, animals may be nonambulatory due to disease, making their meat—in the words of Ed Schafer when he served as Agriculture Secretary—“unfit for human food.”8 Second, animals that are not diseased but downed because of fatigue, stress, or stubbornness are more susceptible to disease because the animals end up lying in the refuse of other animals.9

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that the California law was preempted by a federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, was not unexpected. Nevertheless, it was a major setback to states that find the current federal law inadequate. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the accompanying regulations permit the slaughter of downed animals (except cows in most cases) if they pass an inspection by a USDA inspector.10

Reacting to the Court’s decision, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States explained that “If the federal government had strong rules and laws on the books, there would be no reason for California or any other state to adopt a reinforcing statute. But it’s precisely because the Congress and the USDA are in the grip of the meat industry that we have anemic federal laws on the subject.”11

Despite the setback the Court’s decision represents, the fact that California passed the bill at all shows which direction the wind is blowing. We need to stay informed, stay vigilant, and continue to let our elected officials know that current policy on downed animals, battery cagesgestation crates, and the unsustainable use of antibiotics just isn’t working.

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Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Rejects California Slaughterhouse Law,” The New York Times, January 23, 2012, available here.


California Penal Code Section 599f (e), available here.


California Penal Code Section 599f (j), available here.


T. G. Knowles and others, “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, risk factors and prevention,” PLoS ONE 3, no.2 (2008): e1545, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001545; S. C. Kestin and others, “Prevalence of leg weakness in broiler chickens and its relationship with genotype,” The Veterinary Record 131 (1992): 190-194. For discussion see Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals page 126 and HSUS, “An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Chicken Industry.”



Matthew L. Wald, “Meat Packer Admits Slaughter of Sick Cows,” The New York Times, March 13, 2008, available here.


Andrew Martin, “Largest Recall of Ground Beef is Ordered,” The New York Times, February 18, 2008, available here.


James R. Healey and Julie Schmit, “USDA orders largest beef recall: 143.3 million pounds,” USA Today, February 18, 2008, available here.


The Act also requires all slaughterhouses to comply with humane treatment standards set out in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958.


“US Supreme Court blocks Calif. Slaughterhouse law,” The Associated Press, January 23, 2012, available here.