US Supreme Court guts California law regulating so-called 'downer' livestock

Steven Cuevas/KPCC

American Meat Packers in Chino, 2009

Steven Cuevas/KPCC

American Meat Packers in Chino, 2009


The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down most of a California law that requires slaughterhouses to immediately destroy so-called “downer” livestock. Those are animals too sick or hurt to walk on their own.

The law specifically prohibits slaughterhouses and meatpackers from selling, buying and butchering downer livestock. Lawmakers acted after a Humane Society investigation of a plant in Chino found workers using cattle prods and forklifts to force sick and disabled cows to slaughter.

Jeremy Russell represents the National Meat Association, which took the case to the Supreme Court. He said California’s law conflicts with federal rules already on the books.

“The day the law became active they would have had to begin violating federal law to comply with state law, or start violating the state law to comply with federal law,” said Russell.

The California law called for the immediate euthanization of suspected downer livestock. But Russell said roughly 3 percent of pigs that show up for slaughter exhibit fatigued or simply stubborn behavior that can be confused with symptoms of illness or injury.

“Swine do behave differently and are not at risk for the same diseases," Russell said. "And those animals would have all been removed, and would become a cost as well because they have to be disposed of."

Federal law allows potentially sick hogs to be isolated, inspected and slaughtered separately. Federal inspectors decide if the meat can be sold.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said California's law tries to regulate what’s already covered in the federal statute.

But Humane Society of America president Wayne Pacelle said, that’s because federal regulations were not enough.

“California was compensating for the lack of federal action,” said Pacelle. “The meat industry has thwarted serious reform for more than two decades and California sought to deal with this problem head on by passing a strong statute to protect animals, and also to protect the safety of consumers who are eating these animal products.”

The ruling does leave some provisions of the California law intact. It is still illegal to knowingly transport a downer animal to a slaughterhouse facility, and to knowingly buy or sell a downer animal at an auction yard.

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