National Meat Association Challenges State of California in Supreme Court—Ask an Attorney

Posted on November 8, 2011

Carter DillardOn November 9, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments in a case that will determine whether California voters or out-of-state corporations have the right to decide how farmed animals in California are treated. The Animal Legal Defense Fund recently invited our Facebook fans to send in questions about NMA v. Harris, the National Meat Association’s case against the state of California. In this Q & A session, ALDF Director of Litigation Carter Dillard, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, answers your questions and clarifies the complexities of this important case.

Case Background: In 2008, California passed a law that requires slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize “downer” animals who are too sick to stand up and walk to their own deaths. The National Meat Association and other factory farm lobbying groups want the law declared unconstitutional because of the profits they will lose if they cannot slaughter and sell downed animals. They claim that comparatively weak federal regulations – rather than California law – should control the issue. The California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with the Humane Society of the U.S., Farm Sanctuary, and Humane Farming Association, intervened in the case to defend California’s law, which stops factory farmers from beating, shocking, and dragging downed pigs to slaughter.

The National Meat Association previously succeeded at the district court level, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law, calling the National Meat Association’s arguments "hogwash." This week’s hearing represents the very rare occurrence of the Supreme Court of the United States deciding on a case related specifically to legal protection for animals.

Q: Is the meat industry’s challenge based on an argument that there’s too great a burden on interstate commerce? Is ALDF’s brief available? – it would be interesting reading. -Elizabeth D.

A: The challenge is actually based on the factory farm lobby’s claim that federal law, which regulates how federally-inspected slaughterhouses operate, trumps or “preempts” California’s “downer” law, which is instead a basic cruelty law focused on preventing animals (in this case pigs) too weak, crippled, or unhealthy from being literally dragged into the slaughter process.

The two laws deal with different subjects–on one hand, the slaughter process (the federal law) and on the other, which animals even get into that process (the California law); they are apples and oranges, really. It’s like saying California cannot ban shark finning (as it did last month) because the fins are eventually inspected by federal officials – here, the meat industry is attempted to use an unrelated law to protect animal abuse.

The factory farm lobby is hoping to take advantage of the case to extend federal control over California. As states become more progressive and demand that animals not be treated cruelly, we can expect animal industries to use any weak federal laws that might somehow be related to animal cruelty as an excuse to override more progressive state laws.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund intervened to defend California’s law. Industry is trying to wipe out part of California’s cruelty law by claiming only the federal government – whom in this case they can more easily control – can make laws in this area. This tramples on states’ rights by shifting control to Washington and ensures factory farmers can be as cruel as they want to be. And it won’t stop at cruelty in slaughter – the case has broader implications for states’ rights.

ALDF’s brief is available here.

Q: How does a corporation think that it has the right to go against the will of the people in matters of state? -Keath R.

A: The factory farm lobby wears blinders so that it can only see one thing: profitability. That means they, unlike most people, ignore the suffering of helpless animals if that suffering means profit. And here, they are literally willing to demand that every farmed animal – even those too weak to stand – be slaughtered and sold.

This priority on profits over welfare, despite consumer demand for better legal protections for animals, is sadly a well-known state of affairs, and not just about which animals can be slaughtered. When the Occupy Wall Street movement released its first official declaration, listing its demands, one of the things the declaration explicitly recognized is that corporations “have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.”

Q: Shouldn’t these poor animals who are too sick to stand or walk be euthanized? -Deborah M.

A: Yes, and that is what California law requires – that the animals be “humanely euthanized.” That is the humane thing to do – and what California voters decided. Instead the factory farm lobby wants these animals left alive to suffer if there is any chance to slaughter and sell them for profit. Public reports reveal that at one facility in Los Angeles County, downed pigs were left in an alleyway while company personnel argued with USDA inspectors over whether the pigs should even get drinking water.

Q: How many downer animals are there? Are they so many that euthanizing them or rehabilitating them will cost the Meat Association a severe financial loss? -Deborah M.

A: Precise numbers are not available but “downers” represent a small percentage of animals that are slaughtered. Still, to the factory farm lobby every one of those animals represents an investment, and they don’t want to lose any money by having the animal euthanized rather than slaughtered and sold.

Q: What happens if the U.S. Supreme Court shoots down the California law? What do we do from there? How can we help from that point? -Theo F.

At the very least, if the law is overturned, ALDF will lobby the federal government to change its policy to institute a no-downer rule. There is federal ban on downers that applies to cattle, but not pigs or other livestock. Our first order of business would be to fight to change that.

2 thoughts on “National Meat Association Challenges State of California in Supreme Court—Ask an Attorney

  1. Hannah says:

    Let me know if they decided to overturn it or not

  2. Jane Macdonald says:

    Pigs especially are very intelligent creatures and as ALL animals CRUELTY CANNOT BE ALLOWED.
    Jane Macdonald in the UK

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