Saturday, July 9, 2011

High court to review downer hog ban

Updated: Thursday, June 30, 2011 10:02 AM

Packer group says hogs normally lie down, law interferes with inspection


The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a lawsuit over California's ban on the slaughter of downer hogs.

The National Meat Association, a packer trade group, contends that the prohibition is preempted by federal laws that govern the slaughter of livestock.

"This is about clear standards," said Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the group.

Unlike cattle, hogs normally lie down, so it's necessary for a veterinarian to determine if an animal is actually non-ambulatory, he said, adding that the California law hinders that process.

"It directly interferes with the antemortem (pre-slaughter) inspection of swine," said Steve Wells, an attorney for the group.

The nation's highest court will probably hear oral arguments and make a decision in the case in the spring of 2012, he said.

Attorneys representing the state of California would not comment on the case.

The Humane Society of the U.S., an animal rights group that voluntarily intervened in the case as a defendant, sees the court's decision as unfortunate, said Peter Brandt, its attorney.

"The meat industry is devoting a huge amount of resources to be able to slaughter animals that are too sick or injured to even walk," he said. "This is about the industry trying to cram animals that can't walk through the food system."

Brandt said he hopes the Supreme Court will recognize that the state has a legitimate interest in the prevention of animal cruelty.

If the court rules in favor of the National Meat Association, that would make it harder to prosecute people across the U.S. for such abuses, he said.

California initially passed its law against the slaughter of all downer livestock in 2008 after the Humane Society of the U.S. released a video that depicted the abuse of non-ambulatory cows at a slaughterhouse in the state.

The National Meat Association filed a legal complaint challenging the law as it applied to swine and won an injunction that prevented it from going into effect.

A U.S. district judge in San Francisco found that the prohibition was preempted by federal law, which prevents states from imposing meat inspection standards that are more stringent than federal standards.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision last year, describing the judge's interpretation as "hogwash."

According to the appellate ruling, states are allowed to ban the slaughter of certain animals -- such as horses -- even if federal meat inspection standards exist for such animals.

A non-ambulatory pig is simply another type of animal that the state government can exclude from slaughter, the ruling said.

The National Meat Association disputed these findings in its petition to the Supreme Court.

California's requirement that downer hogs be immediately euthanized prevents federal inspectors and veterinarians from conducting inspections that are mandated by federal law, the group said.

At the Supreme Court's request, the federal government submitted a brief that generally supported the National Meat Association's views. California's ban places requirements on the operation of slaughterhouses and is thereby preempted by federal law, according to the brief.

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