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March 31, 2010

Court Rejects Meat Industry Attempt to Thwart Regulation

For decades, the federal government has not only allowed the meat industry to self-regulate, but it’s taken the hard-earned tax dollars of Americans to enrich the industry at every turn. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s historically been a revolving door, with leaders from industry occupying senior posts within the bureaucracy. Through programs often authorized by Congress, and cooked up by industry lobbyists and carried through the legislative process by representatives and senators serving on the agriculture committees on Capitol Hill, USDA has burned a hole in the pockets of American taxpayers by delivering commodity price supports, surplus commodity buy-outs, agricultural research, market promotion programs, and trade promotions and agreements that all benefit agribusiness. Americans hardly get the best service for the investment. Americans continue to be sickened by the tens of thousands every year by eating tainted food. And in addition to producing cheap meat, milk, and eggs, factory farms produce vast amounts of animal cruelty and ground and air pollution.

Downer cow at auction
The HSUS
A downer cow languishes at auction.

The meat processing industry and its allies within the production agriculture sectors have always fought, with hammer and saw, efforts at the federal level to address animal welfare problems within the industry, including the abuse of downers, the failure to require humane slaughter of poultry, the absence of any humane care standards for animals on farms, and the miserable trade in horses for slaughter for human consumption. As far as I can recall, they’ve never supported a single legitimate animal welfare legislative reform.

With a few exceptions—such as legislative bans on tail docking of dairy cows in California and certain confinement practices in Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Oregon—they’ve generally taken an equally hostile view toward reform at the state level. When it comes to slaughter practices specifically, they typically argue that the states have no authority whatsoever to regulate humane treatment of farm animals and that federal law preempts the imposition of any state standards at federally inspected facilities. Unfortunately for them, the federal courts keep telling them how wrong they are, and that happened again today.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in National Meat Association (NMA) v. Brown, ruled today that the state of California is well within its authority to ban the sale, transport, or purchase of downer cows and pigs. The NMA and the American Meat Institute challenged a 2008 California law, passed in the wake of The HSUS’s investigation at the Westland/Hallmark slaughter plant, and argued that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) preempts state authority over any aspect of slaughter. The HSUS and other animal welfare groups intervened, and today the court ruled in our favor.

“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 FMIA,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. “These are the kinds of judgments reserved to the states, and nothing in the FMIA requests states to make them on a species-wide basis or not at all. Federal law regulates the meat inspection process; states are free to decide which animals may be turned into meat.”

This is the third straight federal appellate court ruling against the meat industry. Other players in the industry sued to invalidate Illinois and Texas statutes banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption. In response, both the 5th Circuit and the 7th Circuit in separate rulings in 2007 declared it is the prerogative of the states to ban horse slaughter if they so choose. In fact, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in today’s 9th Circuit ruling, “Its purpose [FMIA] is certainly not to preserve the slaughter of any kind of animals for human consumption.”

Robert Martin, former executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, said it well in his executive summary to the report in 2008: “At the end of his second term, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex—an unhealthy alliance between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and their friends on Capitol Hill. Now, the agro-industrial complex—an alliance of agriculture commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill—is a concern in animal food production in the 21st century.” The courts and consumers must provide a check on the excesses of industrialized agriculture because it’s not happening by other means.

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