November 1, 2011
US Supreme Court hears case concerning treatment of pigs
The US Supreme Court will be hearing the case of "non-ambulatory pigs" involving a dispute between California and the pork industry on how to handle pigs unwilling or unable to walk when they arrive at a slaughterhouse.
Previously, the Supreme Court had only heard cases about cruelty, inhumane treatment and executions that were not pig-related.
The issue, which the justices will take up next week, has already gotten the Obama administration in trouble with the Humane Society of the United States, which faulted government lawyers for joining the case on the side of the pork producers.
Under a three-year California law, a slaughterhouse operator must immediately remove a "non-ambulatory animal" from a herd and "humanely euthanise" it.
Federal law says animals that are lying down must be removed and inspected, but most need not be kept from the slaughterhouse.
"Sometimes the pigs are stressed or fatigued from the trip, or they're just stubborn. Usually, they recover, and if they're fine, they go into the food supply," said Minneapolis lawyer Steven Wells, who represents the National Meat Assn.
"We're not concerned about a pig who is taking a nap," said California Deputy Attorney General Susan K. Smith in Los Angeles. "Our definition of a non-ambulatory pig is one which is unable to stand and walk without assistance." She said the state's law, which is on hold pending the legal challenge, would protect the human food supply and prevent animal cruelty.
The lawyers concede there is no happy ending for the pigs regardless of which side prevails. The pigs are either euthanised separately or sent into a slaughterhouse.
Wells of the meat association said there would be a "severe financial impact" on the pork industry if a typical slaughterhouse was forced to cull 200 to 300 pigs a day because they were lying down.
He is urging the high court to strike down the California law on the grounds that it is pre-empted, or trumped, by the federal law.
Under California's approach, the sick pigs "will be euthanised, but it ends their suffering," Smith said.
Though the case before the court is all about pigs, it began with shocking scenes of weak and wobbly cows being prodded, dragged and bulldozed into a slaughterhouse in San Bernardino County. A secret surveillance video showing the abuse was released by the Humane Society in January 2008.
The revelations triggered the largest meat recall in American history. They also prompted President Obama to issue an order in 2009 that forbids "downer" cows from being sent to slaughter. Because mad cow disease can be transmitted to humans in rare instances, all sick cattle must be kept from slaughterhouses, federal officials said. However, no such ban was imposed for pigs and other farm animals.
That disparity set the stage for the legal dispute over California's broader ban on downer animals at slaughterhouses.
The National Meat Association sued on behalf of the pork producers and argued that California did not have the authority to impose its rules on slaughterhouses. Their lawyers insisted the federal regulation was better because it required inspections of sick animals rather than automatically killing them. These inspections of live pigs are crucial for detecting swine diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, that can devastate a herd, they said.
A federal judge in Fresno agreed with the industry and barred the state from enforcing its law, ruling California lawmakers had overstepped their bounds.
"Hogwash," wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 3-0 decision siding with California. He said states have always had the authority to say that certain animals, such as horses, may not be slaughtered for food.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the major pork producers "have a history of mistreating downer pigs, often while USDA inspectors are present." He cited reports of "conscious pigs being dragged from trailers" at a slaughterhouse in Los Angeles County.