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Hog slaughterhouse rule scrutinized by SCOTUS

A battle between the pork industry and the state of California will soon make national news as the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether a state prohibition of slaughtering nonambulatory or “downer” livestock preempts federal law.

A 2008 California law prohibits slaughterhouse operators from allowing nonambulatory hogs to remain with the herd. Instead, the operator must immediately “humanely euthanize” and remove the animal. This differs from federal law which requires animals that are lying down to be removed and inspected, but allows such animals to continue to slaughter, depending on circumstance.

The National Meat Association, which sued on behalf of the pork industry, points to the potential financial hardship of culling hogs that are uncooperative or transport-stressed, and has asked the High Court to strike down California’s edict on grounds that it over-stepped the federal rule.

Although a federal judge initially sided with the industry and prevented the state from enacting the law, Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals summarized that decision as “hogwash.” In the unanimous three-member opinion, Kozinski said states have always had certain authority regarding livestock and slaughter.

In effect, the district court reasoned that states may ban the slaughter of certain species, but once a state allows a species to be slaughtered, it cannot impose further restrictions. Hogwash.

States aren’t limited to excluding animals from slaughter on a species-wide basis. What if a state wanted to ban the slaughter of a specific breed of pig but not the entire species? Or to allow wild dogs and horses to be slaughtered, but not domesticated companions? And what if, in response to a population problem, a state only banned the slaughter of female cattle? Or, perhaps due to ethical concerns, prohibited the slaughter of pregnant or newborn animals, or the slaughter of non-free-range animals? Regulating what kinds of animals may be slaughtered calls for a host of practical, moral and public health judgments that go far beyond those made in the [Federal Meat Inspection Act]. These are the kinds of judgments reserved to the states … Federal law regulates the meat inspection process; states are free to decide which animals may be turned into meat.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), which contains the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, is the law that overseas the U.S. process for slaughter, provides inspection services and so-forth.

In its brief, the National Meat Association highlighted operations at a California slaughterhouse that processes roughly 7,700 hogs each day.

A number of hogs delivered to this California facility become nonambulatory during transit, and approximately 225 per day become nonambulatory while awaiting slaughter. For hogs, this symptom (being nonambulatory) is usually temporary and happens for a variety of reasons, most of which are benign. Some hogs become stressed or fatigued during transit and, therefore, cannot or will not stand or walk upon arrival. Others become unable to do so, or refuse to do so, only after being removed from the truck and while awaiting slaughter. As required by the regulations … these hogs are separated and held for inspection. The vast majority of nonambulatory pigs are merely overheated, stressed, fatigued, or stubborn and, if allowed to rest, will stand and walk unassisted. Those pigs are routinely passed by the inspectors for slaughter and human consumption. Others, however, are actually sick or diseased, and are removed from the food supply.

The organization also argued that many diseases or sicknesses that impact hogs need to be evaluated while the animal is still alive. Through the process that exists, they argue, federal inspectors are best able to track disease and pull entire lots of animals that may pose a risk to the food supply or may expose other lots of livestock.

The federal ante-mortem inspection regime thus protects both the animal industry and human health by preventing or limiting the spread of disease and keeping diseased animals out of the food supply, while at the same time allowing those animals passing inspection to be humanely use for the purpose for which they were raised, as food for human consumption.

The California law was passed by state lawmakers after a 2008 whistleblower video by the Humane Society of the United States showed nonambulatory cows being sent to slaughter. The aftermath was a massive beef recall and a 2009 federal order that expressly prohibits any such cows (but not hogs or other livestock) from being slaughtered for human consumption.

But opponents of the California measure say that a downed cow, which can be showing symptoms of mad cow disease, is quite different from a hog.

Attorneys for HSUS, which was instrumental in passage of the California law, argue that there has been a general absence of federal and state humane regulations, which has been made more dire by vertical integration within the livestock industry.

Most pigs who go down do so for reasons that begin long before the animals arrive at the slaughter facility. As one industry article explained, “[t]he packer is at the mercy of the pigs’ experiences prior to arriving at the plant.” The so-called “fatigued pig syndrome” is a convenient label invented by the industry to justify the number of animals who become nonambulatory for reasons the industry cannot or does not want to explain — likely due to factors of mass production, grueling long-distance transport, and injury that the industry has freely chosen to make an integral part of the business of turning pigs into meat. The best scientific article on the subject concluded in 2008 that nonambulatory pigs suffer from a laundry list of physical and systemic problems, including bone injury; painful foot and leg problems; respiratory, kidney and liver disease and dysfunction; and infection.

In addition the group argues, the industry’s assertion that such nonambultory pigs need to be given time to rest “conceals a grim reality.”

Federal regulations require that nonambulatory pigs be segregated, but they do not usually become nonambulatory in convenient locations where they can be given food or water and allowed to rest in place. And slaughterhouse personnel who want to move a 300-pound nonambulatory pig, either to slaughter or to a segregated area to “rest,” have simple choices. They can induce the pig to walk by applying pain and/or brute force in some form. And they can push, drag or otherwise maneuver her using heavy machinery.

As members of Congress explained when debate proposed legislation in 2001, “[t]hese animals, known as downers, suffer beyond belief as they are kicked, dragged, and prodded with electric shocks in an effort to move them at auctions and intermediate markets en route to slaughter.” (statement of Rep. Ackerman) “It is practically impossible to move these animals humanely, so they are commonly dragged with chains and pushed around with tractors and fork lifts.” (statement of Rep. Morella) “[H]umane euthanasia is the only reasonable solution. It is civilized to oppose needless animal cruelty and inexcusable to allow it to continue.” (statement of Rep. Kelly)

Noncompliance teports from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service show that slaughterhouse employees have used a wide range of techniques in an effort to move or deal with downed pigs. The operators have:

  • dragged nonambulatory pigs with ropes
  • dragged pigs by their ears
  • dropped pigs from bone-breaking heights
  • caused pigs to be trampled
  • run over pige with heavy machinery
  • dumped pigs in “suspect” pens where they were without food and water

The full merit briefs from the National Meat Association and non-state respondents (HSUS) are available. All briefs can be viewed on the American Bar Association’s preview site. Supreme Court justices are expected to take up the case this week.

Iowa remains the number one pork producing state in the nation, and the top state for pork exports. At the end of of 2008, according to the National Pork Board, there were 8,300 hog operations in the Hawkeye State and roughly 19 million hogs being raised here at any given time. Iowa producers marketed 37 million hogs in 2008, or roughly 30 percent of all U.S. production.

The state’s pork activity generates nearly $950 million in household income for pork producers, 39,000 jobs directly related to raising and caring for livestock, and a contribution of nearly $5 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

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