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January 05, 2009

On the Ropes

Two weeks ago, meat industry groups announced they’d filed a legal challenge to portions of the upgraded Downed Animal Protection Act in California, passed last year by the state legislature in the wake of our investigation into a southern California slaughter plant formerly called Hallmark/Westland. And also last week, the Montana Supreme Court rejected a legal maneuver by game farms to secure remuneration for any loss in business attributed to a 2000 statewide ballot initiative that stopped them from allowing trophy hunters to shoot captive animals on their properties. I asked Jonathan Lovvorn, our vice president and chief counsel for Animal Protection Litigation and Research, to offer his observations about these important legal cases—the meat industry case just launched, and the canned hunting case now decided.

Along the pathway to any social reform, there are leaders—like the groups and individuals who pushed for passage of Proposition 2 in California. And there are laggards.

But every once and again you find players who are stuck in the mud, knee-deep.

A good case in point is the recent surprise decision by the National Meat Association (NMA) and the American Meat Institute (AMI)—two trade groups representing major packing and slaughterhouse companies—to file suit seeking to overturn key provisions of California’s newly upgraded law banning the use of sick and disabled animals in the food supply.

These groups are taking dead aim at the law enacted in response to an HSUS investigation that exposed torment of downer cows at a southern California slaughter plant. The Hallmark/Westland plant, based in Chino, was the nation’s number two supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.

Downed cow pushed by forklift at Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant
© The HSUS
A downed cow is shoved with a forklift at Hallmark/Westland.

The resulting scandal over the abuse of dairy cattle at Hallmark exposed major gaps in food safety and humane handling, and probably cost the meat industry and the federal government more than $1 billion when all costs were tallied.

According to the groups’ papers, they think California lacks the authority to protect school children from mad cow and other foodborne illness, or to prevent wanton cruelty to farm animals. They also claim that the law is “unnecessary” because many downed animals are simply tired, and “could recover with rest time.”

Did these groups already forget the shocking images of workers using forklifts, electric prods, and high pressure water hoses to force disabled animals into the slaughter plant? Did any of these animals look like they were just a little tuckered out and needed a rest?

Even one of the livestock industry’s own commentators decried the move, wisely noting that “victory in court will prove much more costly than the loss of an extremely small number of non-ambulatory animals... Watching two of the most influential meat industry trade associations fight and win a court battle on a legal technicality will do nothing to help restore [public] confidence.”

And if NMA and AMI are expecting the courts to declare the California law invalid, they are likely to be disappointed.

Two federal appeals courts have already ruled that states have the authority to ban the slaughter of certain animals (in those cases, horses rather than disabled animals) where the slaughter and sale of such animals is contrary to the state’s interest in preserving public morals and protecting public health. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rejected requests to reconsider those rulings.

But these animal-use groups are often slow to pick up on changing currents in the law.

Elk in woods
© iStockphoto

Take the example of the Montana Supreme Court’s decision last Wednesday rejecting a legal challenge to the state’s canned hunting ban—which was enacted by voters through a ballot initiative in 2000. Canned hunt operators—people who make their living collecting fees from unethical trophy hunters who want to shoot elk and other tame animals behind a fence—challenged the law years ago. They argued the state somehow owed them financial compensation for the loss of their “right” to operate canned hunting facilities, a theory the Montana supreme court categorically rejected.

It’s a claim we hear a lot—whether it’s the “right” to cram factory farm animals into tiny wire cages, the “right” to fight animals for gambling, or the “right” to slaughter American horses for foreign diners. Time and again, these arguments are summarily rejected by the courts.

Indeed, every single legal challenge to an HSUS-backed animal law that has been brought in the last five years has failed.

These animal-use groups march into the courts because they have already lost in the court of public opinion and in the nation’s legislatures, and the courts represent one last Hail Mary maneuver on their part.

Ironically, this was traditionally the recourse of the animal protection community—shut out of the legislative and political process, and focused primarily on difficult and sometimes hopeless one-at-a-time legal challenges to laws and policies that had already been decided against our interests.

The humane movement has proved more adept in recent years, and taken the lead in enacting humane laws, changing public opinion, and using litigation as a tool for advancing the larger social agenda.

This noticeable inversion in position—wherein those who profit from animal cruelty and abuse are now the ones stuck filing the last-gasp legal challenges—means a lot of things for the animals and our movement. But more than anything, it’s an unmistakable sign that we are winning.

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