National Meat Association v. Harris

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

Follow me on Twitter @alisonmrowe

Next Wednesday (November 9, 2011) the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a case where the main issue is States’ rights to impose their own regulations on federally-inspected slaughterhouses. The case is National Meat Association v. Harris (Docket No. 10-244). Though the case involves swine instead of horses, the Court’s decision might ultimately affect the horse slaughter debate currently being waged in Congress.

The issue before the Court is whether 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). The National Meat case deals with a California law governing slaughterhouses in that state that was passed in 2008, after the Humane Society of the United States released a video of so-called “downer cows” being pushed with a forklift, kicked, electrocuted, and dragged with chains at a slaughterhouse.

If the Court ultimately finds that California (and, presumably, all other states) can impose its own regulations on slaughterhouses to which the FMIA applies within their respective states, this might ultimately affect the current battle over horse slaughter being waged in the United States. An interesting question raised by this case, in my mind, is this:

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?"

It’s an interesting question, and I’m torn. While I generally don’t like to see new red tape and new regulations unduly imposed on any industry, I tend to think that most issues such as this are best dealt with on the state level. If the Supreme Court finds that states can, in fact, impose their own laws on federally-inspected slaughterhouses, I am somewhat encouraged that this might ultimately provide vehicle whereby a “win-win” resolution of the horse slaughter battle may be reached.  If humane horse slaughter can be reintroduced in the United States, many horse industry groups believe that that this would have a positive economic impact on the overall horse industry.

Follow me on Twitter @alisonmrowe