The Eat with Care blog
Writing on humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian.
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Supreme Court debates “downer” law
UPDATE: the Supreme Court voted unanimously on Jan. 23, 2012 to overturn the California law decribed below. It held that the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which states that downer pigs must be inspected before being slaughtered, pre-empts the California law that required these pigs to be immediately euthanized. The takeaway? It’s a states’ rights thing: states can’t regulate slaughterhouse issues that are regulated by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Read a news account and the HSUS response.
Here’s a word to know: downer. It doesn’t refer to the bad day you just had, or that sad song in your head. It describes a farm animal too weak or sick to stand on its own or walk through a slaughterhouse by itself. To process these animals, workers sometimes lift downers with chains or tractors, or encourage them to get up by using electric prods.
Animal welfare groups believe this encourages animal abuse and hurts animals that are already suffering. Then there are the health concerns: the federal government prohibits putting downer cattle into the food supply because these cattle have a higher risk of carrying mad cow disease. (Other downed animals are allowed to enter the food supply.)
On Nov. 9th, the Supreme Court heard arguments about a 2008 California law that requires all downer animals to be euthanized immediately upon arriving at a slaughterhouse. The issue is whether the California law is pre-empted by a federal law stating that all downer animals must first be separated and held for disease inspection. The National Meat Association, an industry group representing packing companies and slaughter plants, brought the case and believes the law should be overturned in the case of pigs because pigs, the Association argues, often sit or lie down when they are fatigued, and federal inspectors should be allowed to determine whether fatigue or illness is at play before a pig is automatically euthanized.
The case appears to be more about a state law conflicting with a federal law than about the morality of euthanizing downers. Still, the decision could affect how sick and injured pigs are treated in slaughterhouses, and could determine the extent to which states can pass animal welfare laws. (More on that here from the Humane Society of the United States.) A decision is expected early next year. The case is National Meat Association vs. Harris and you can read more about it here at SCOTUSblog, a non-partisan news site about the Supreme Court.