Supreme Court to Consider Protections for Sick, Injured Farm Animals
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a case relating to animal protection for the first time in two decades—ruling that a federal law banning the sale of videos depicting extreme acts of cruelty, including animal crush videos, was overbroad and therefore unconstitutional. The Court’s fairly narrow ruling made it possible for Congress to develop and pass a more carefully tailored statute to ban the sale of animal crush videos so we would not see the crush video industry revive itself and torture countless animals. President Obama signed the revamped measure into law in December.
Now, the Supreme Court is set to hear a second major animal protection case in as many years. After suffering defeat in a federal appellate court, the National Meat Association, a meat industry trade group representing major packing and slaughter plant companies, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an HSUS-backed 2008 California law that bans the sale, transport, or purchase of sick and disabled “downer” livestock in an attempt to squeeze profit from these animals, who are so weakened they are unable to walk.
Our investigation of a California slaughter plant in 2008.
The California law was passed in the wake of The HSUS’s investigation at the Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant in order to ensure that the horrific abuse suffered by dairy cows at the plant—including repeated electrical shocks, shackling and dragging, ramming with forklifts, and high-pressure water hosing in the mouth and nose—would no longer occur in the state. In barring the sale, transport, or purchase of downed livestock, including cows and pigs, the California law removes the industry’s financial incentive to force these sick and disabled animals to slaughter.
In the wake of the Hallmark investigation, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service declared that it would refuse to purchase any meat from downed animals for its commodities program, which is a vital component of the National School Lunch Program, comprising 20 percent of commodities used in school lunches. Billy Cox, an AMS spokesperson, explained the purpose of the change to Meatingplace, a meat industry trade journal: "These newly required procedures are directly aimed at ensuring there is not a repeat of the conditions animals were subjected to at Hallmark/Westland." So although USDA refuses to buy an ounce of pork from non-ambulatory pigs, it inexplicably allows the meat industry to drag collapsed pigs and other animals through the slaughter process and to direct the meat onto American’s plates. The state of California as well as The HSUS and other animal protection groups have filed briefs urging the court to reject the NMA challenge, but the meat industry and the Obama administration are on the other side.
Amazingly, candidate Obama spoke out on this issue in February 2008 on the campaign trail, very soon after the facts in the Hallmark case came to light. Citing animal welfare, he argued that his administration would not tolerate this kind of abuse and would support a ban on downer animals in the food supply. But this campaign promise seems to have been a casualty of his administration’s bowing to agribusiness concerns. His USDA keeps doling out subsidies to the pork industry, even with the enormous federal debt, and its decision to side with the meat packers and the pork industry is another sop to them.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of pigs arrive at slaughterhouses as downers or go down shortly after arriving. Indeed, truck transport is so stressful and injurious to pigs that nearly a quarter of a million pigs simply die in transit to slaughter every year. Our brief to the court is a powerful indictment of the mishandling of pigs by this industry, and a strong defense of the very sort of laws that the California legislature passed almost unanimously.
Abuses documented in recent years by USDA involve:
- dragging non-ambulatory pigs with ropes,
- dragging pigs by their ears,
- dropping pigs from bone-breaking heights,
- causing pigs to be trampled,
- running over pigs with heavy machinery,
- electric-prodding pigs who were unable to stand or walk,
- moving conscious pigs with Bobcats and other bulldozer-type vehicles, and
- dumping pigs in “suspect pens” and then denying them any access to water for great lengths of time.
At a single Hormel subsidiary—a Los Angeles County-based facility known as Farmer John—USDA inspectors have witnessed conscious pigs being dragged from trailers, crushed by semi-trucks, and dropped more than four feet from the back of trucks. Federal inspectors relayed one telling example about Farmer John’s approach to collapsed pigs:
[p]er establishment managers, the hogs became weak and unable to walk normally while being moved to the stunning area. They were put in the nearby alleyway to rest and recover before being moved into the serpentine alley. Because this was a designated alleyway, there was no access to water in the area. Establishment managers were unable to quantify the amount of time that the hogs had been held in the alleyway, but asserted that it could not have been very long. [ ] During the initial discussion, establishment managers were firmly of the opinion that because the hogs were in an alleyway, not a designated holding pen, there was no requirement to ensure access to water.
It is beyond disgraceful that management at a division of a multi-billion dollar company like Hormel would put up such a fight over simply providing drinking water to animals who are too weak or sick to even stand up. Indeed, in other contexts this kind of callous and affirmatively cruel treatment of animals could merit a criminal animal cruelty conviction.
That example is hardly an isolated case. In the space of nine months beginning in August 2006, this facility had been cited for five inhumane handling non-compliances.
According to an employee of Farmer John who offered testimony in this case, every single day approximately 225 pigs collapse at this one facility. This is easy to understand, because Hormel trucks in thousands of pigs every single week all the way from Nebraska, Texas, and other far-off locations, all while they market their pork with the trademarked slogan “Taste the Local Flavor.” Deception and cruelty often go hand in hand.
As Hormel well knows, long-distance transport is acutely damaging to pigs. It is often lethal, or it renders pigs so injured or stressed that they cannot stand up. The National Meat Association is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will agree that slaughterhouses have the right to force these helpless animals onto the kill-floor and onto Americans’ plates. We’ll be fighting every step of the way to preserve California’s law, to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and to protect these creatures from this sort of cruelty.