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U.S. Supreme Court takes up treatment of pigs

The National Meat Assn. challenges a California law that says slaughterhouses must remove and 'humanely euthanize' animals unable to walk.

October 29, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • California's deputy attorney general says the new law, which is on hold pending the legal challenge, would protect the human food supply and prevent animal cruelty. Above, pigs at an Oklahoma farm.
California's deputy attorney general says the new law, which is on… (J. Pat Carter, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court has decided plenty of cases concerning cruelty, inhumane treatment and executions, but until now, none was about pigs.

The case of the "nonambulatory pigs" involves a dispute between California and the pork industry over how to handle pigs unwilling or unable to walk when they arrive at a slaughterhouse.

The issue, which the justices will take up next week, has already gotten the Obama administration in trouble with the Humane Society of the United States, which faulted government lawyers for joining the case on the side of the pork producers.

Under a 3-year-old California law, a slaughterhouse operator must immediately remove a "nonambulatory animal" from a herd and "humanely euthanize" it.

Federal law says animals that are lying down must be removed and inspected, but most need not be kept from the slaughterhouse.

"Sometimes the pigs are stressed or fatigued from the trip, or they're just stubborn. Usually, they recover, and if they're fine, they go into the food supply," said Minneapolis lawyer Steven Wells, who represents the National Meat Assn.

"We're not concerned about a pig who is taking a nap," said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan K. Smith in Los Angeles. "Our definition of a nonambulatory pig is one who is unable to stand and walk without assistance." She said the state's law, which is on hold pending the legal challenge, would protect the human food supply and prevent animal cruelty.

The lawyers concede there is no happy end for the pigs regardless of which side prevails. The pigs are either euthanized separately or sent into a slaughterhouse.

Wells, of the meat association, said there would be a "severe financial impact" on the pork industry if a typical slaughterhouse were forced to cull 200 to 300 pigs a day because they were lying down.

He is urging the high court to strike down the California law on the grounds that it is preempted, or trumped, by the federal law.

Under California's approach, the sick pigs "will be euthanized, but it ends their suffering," Smith said.

Though the case before the court is all about pigs, it began with shocking scenes of weak and wobbly cows being prodded, dragged and bulldozed into a slaughterhouse in San Bernardino County. A secret surveillance video showing the abuse was released by the Humane Society in January 2008.

The revelations triggered the largest meat recall in American history. They also prompted President Obama to issue an order in 2009 that forbids "downer" cows from being sent to slaughter. Because mad cow disease can be transmitted to humans in rare instances, all sick cattle must be kept from slaughterhouses, federal officials said. However, no such ban was imposed for pigs and other farm animals.

That disparity set the stage for the legal dispute over California's broader ban on downer animals at slaughterhouses.

The National Meat Assn. sued on behalf of the pork producers and argued that California did not have the authority to impose its rules on slaughterhouses. Their lawyers insisted the federal regulation was better because it required inspections of sick animals rather than automatically killing them. These inspections of live pigs are crucial for detecting swine diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, that can devastate a herd, they said.

A federal judge in Fresno agreed with the industry and barred the state from enforcing its law, ruling California lawmakers had overstepped their bounds.

"Hogwash," wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 3-0 decision siding with California. He said states have always had the authority to say that certain animals, such as horses, may not be slaughtered for food.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the major pork producers "have a history of mistreating downer pigs, often while USDA inspectors are present." He cited reports of "conscious pigs being dragged from trailers" at a slaughterhouse in Los Angeles County.

david.savage@latimes.com

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