U.S. Supreme Court says States Cannot Regulate Activities at Slaughter Plants

On January 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while states may be able to enact laws banning the slaughter of horses, states cannot impose their own laws governing how animals are handled and processed at federally-regulated slaughterhouses.   A link to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion can be found here.

This opinion was handed down in National Meat Association v. Harris, the “pig case” I discussed back in November 2011 when the case was in the oral arguments phase. This prior post discussed that case’s possible indirect effects on the horse slaughter debate:

Could the U.S. Supreme Court Unwittingly Decide the Fate of Horse Slaughter?

Photo:  Punxsutawney Phil declared today that winter is far from over.

 

In a nutshell, the Court held in Harris that a state law in California requiring all slaughterhouses to “immediately euthanize” any nonambulatory animal on its premises is preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) because the FMIA regulates slaughterhouses’ handling and treatment of animals upon their arrival at a slaughterhouse. 

The Court was not persuaded by the argument that the treatment of nonambulatory pigs could be regulated by states because the Fifth and Ninth Circuits have upheld state laws banning the slaughter of horses. The court made clear that the FMIA applies to a broad range of activities at slaughterhouses, but it does not address the specific species of animals that are allowed to be processed in the first place. With respect to the federal circuit cases upholding state bans on horse slaughter, Justice Kagan, speaking for the Court, stated:

We express no view on those decisions, except to say that the laws sustained there differ from [the California law requiring the immediate euthanization of nonambulatory animals] in a significant respect…Unlike a horse slaughtering ban, the statute thus reaches into the slaughterhouse’s facilities and affects its daily activities. And in so doing, the California law runs smack into the FMIA’s regulations. So whatever might be said of other bans on slaughter, [the challenged California law] imposes requirements within—and indeed at the very heart of—the FMIA’s scope.”

The question I posed in my prior post about Harris was:

“What if one or more states were to enact laws that made illegal the so-called 'evils' of slaughter that opponents of horse processing find so unsavory? Would the opponents of horse slaughter be opposed to the humane processing of horses in those states?"

The answer to this question, per the Court’s ultimate opinion in Harris, is “it doesn’t matter now, because it is now clear that states cannot make their own laws governing how animals are handled at slaughterhouses that are governed by the FMIA.”

Also, we can now assume that if the processing of horse meat for human consumption is to be resumed in any state where it is still legal under state law, FMIA regulations (and not any regulations that the states may attempt to promulgate) will govern how horses are handled and processed in those states.

For another take on the Harris case and its possible effects on horse slaughter, see the following post by Milt Toby on Horses and the Law:

Horses and Cattle and Pigs, Oh My

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