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 cages, gestation crates, and the unsustainable use of antibiotics just isn’t working.
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