Today, eight of the nine Supreme Court justices spoke up or peppered lawyers with questions about the precedent-setting animal welfare case before the Court today—the second animal cruelty case to come before it in as many terms. The case, National Meat Association (NMA) v. Harris, centers on a challenge by a slaughterhouse trade association to the provisions of California’s anti-cruelty law relating to the abuse of downer livestock. State lawmakers enacted the measure in the wake of an HSUS undercover investigation documenting terrible cruelty at a cull-cow slaughter plant in Chino, where downer cows were rammed with forklifts and dragged by chains into the slaughter area. The HSUS and four other animal welfare groups intervened in the case in support of the law and the state of California, which is the named defendant in this proceeding.
A downer cow being pushed by a forklift at a California
The NMA argues that California’s law is preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and is therefore invalid. In this case, as well as in the daily enterprise of turning pigs into meat, the NMA is aligned with the National Pork Producers Council, which has tried to proffer the notion to members of Congress that downer pigs are just “fatigued” and that they will get up if you give them enough time to recover from the trauma of long-distance transport and mistreatment and their underlying genetic unsoundness.
The agribusiness industry got yet another valentine today from the Obama administration, which also argued that the California law should be struck down. This is the same Obama administration, through its USDA, that provides hundreds of millions in subsidies to the hog industry and that has engaged in endless lobbying and shuttle diplomacy to open up trade agreements with South Korea and Columbia in order to boost U.S. pork exports. In this case, the Obama administration not only demonstrated it has no problem with the fact that tens of thousands of pigs show up at slaughterhouses so battered and beleaguered that they cannot walk, but also that the states do not have the authority to prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption, because the FMIA preempts any state from taking such an action at federally inspected slaughter plants.
Again, the meat industry—which includes the slaughter plants, the stockyards and auction houses, and commodity groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council—fights animal welfare regulations at every turn. In the quarter-century of my involvement with animal protection, I am not aware of any of these groups ever supporting any animal welfare measure. Now, the very groups that fight every animal welfare advance at the federal level say only the federal government can regulate the care of animals at slaughter plants. It’s a pretty convenient argument when you think about it: tell the Congress that no more rules are needed because the industry can self-police, tell the courts that the only the federal government can regulate conduct here, and tell the states to mind their own business. The animals are left with almost nothing in the way of protections.
If the Supreme Court strikes down this law, then we may not only see California’s anti-cruelty law gutted, but we may also see anti-horse slaughter laws in California, Illinois, and Texas shot down, too.
I have been a close observer and a participant in just about all of the major battles in Congress over animal welfare for the last two decades. If we have to wait for strong farm animal welfare rules, or even food safety rules, from the Congress and the USDA, we’ll be waiting for an awfully long time. Both the Congress and the USDA are in the grip of agribusiness. As such, the states have a vital role to play in protecting animals from cruelty; frankly, it’s their last resort.
It’s important to remember that this is the same cast of characters that allowed the abuses of downer cows at Hallmark to occur. California lawmakers would have seen no reason to upgrade their anti-cruelty laws but for the abuses they saw on their television screens–abuses conducted by the meat industry and overseen by our own USDA at a federally inspected slaughter plant. Before our footage came to light, all of these parties told us that the animals were fine and that the industry and the government were doing a superb job. Our video put the lie to all of their false claims and preening overconfidence.
What transpired in the U.S. Supreme Court today, in terms of the fatuous argument of the meat industry and the obeisance of the Obama administration, was a little like watching sausage being made: it was something you’d rather avert your gaze from because the reality is just too unsettling to stomach.