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Sunday, February 5, 2012

National Meat Association v. Harris, 565 U.S. ___ (2012)

The Federal Meat Inspection Act ("FMIA") has specific requirements relating to the type of animals eligible for slaughter and sale as meat.  Healthy ambulatory animals are passed by inspectors and slaughtered, packaged, and sold; non-ambulatory animals that display additional signs of infection are condemned, segregated, and slaughtered separately.  Intermediate cases are categorized as "suspect," separated from both the passed and condemned animals.  Following a second, more careful inspection, those animals may be passed, slaughtered, and sold, or condemned.  This creates a practical issue, however, of how non-ambulatory animals are to be funneled out of the slaughter process for segregation either as condemned or suspect. 

In 2008, the Humane Society of America released undercover footage showing how nonambulatory animals are, in fact, funneled out of line.  In that video, the injured animals are subjected to electric shocks, stabbed with the prongs of fork lifts, blasted with fire hoses, and beaten in the face and eyes. 

The California legislature responded to the blatant cruelty by passing their own inspection statute, requiring that injured animals be quickly and humanely euthanized, instead of being forced to travel long distances and then wait, in pain, for a second inspection.  The National Meat Association challenged the statute as preempted by the FMIA.

Justice Kagan, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, observed that "nothing in the federal Act requires what the state law forbids (or forbids what the state law requires)."  Nevertheless, the Court held that the express preemption provisions of the FMIA preclude states from imposing additional burdens on slaughter houses, even in the interest of preventing animal cruelty.

The Court confined its analysis to the express language of the federal statute and, consequently, avoided a policy analysis.  This spared Justice Kagan from having to explain the legitimacy of a federal statute that requires minimum-wage employees to move non-ambulatory animals out of a slaughter line and into a separate segregated pen and, thereafter, hold them there for a future inspection.  The Court did note, however, that between 100,000-to-1,000,000 pigs are found to be injured during the inspection process annually.

The doctrine of federal preemption, at its core, is a means to prevent races to the bottom; it's a good thing that states can't compete for the business of slaughter houses by offering lower and lower standards for cruelty (or lower environmental standards for factories and powerplants, lower minimum wages for corporations, etc.) 

The California statute in this instance, however, was just the opposite: a state legislating against the interest of business in favor of consumers and, ironically, the consumed.  Application of the preemption doctrine absent even a cursory discussion of the harm caused by the California statute - the Court identified none - was inappropriate.

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