Although California barred the purchase, sale and butchering of animals that can't walk and required slaughterhouses under the threat of fines and jail time to immediately kill nonambulatory animals, justices said that encroached on federal laws that don't require immediate euthanizing.
"The federal law does not require me immediately to go over and euthanize the cow,” Justice Stephen Breyer told a California lawyer. “Your law does require me to go over and immediately euthanize the cow. And therefore, your law seems an additional requirement in respect to the operations of a federally inspected meatpacking facility."
After the 2008 release of an undercover Humane Society video showing workers abusing cows at the Hallmark-Westland slaughter plant, California strengthened regulations against slaughtering downers. The ban on buying, selling and slaughter of downer cattle also extends to pigs, sheep and goats under California law.
Pork producers, however, sued to stop the law, saying the new law interfered with federal laws that require inspections of downed livestock before determining whether they can be used for meat.
"A slaughterhouse worker who is on the premises needs to have one set of rules that the worker follows," said Steven Wells, the association's lawyer.
Approximately 3 percent of pigs delivered to slaughterhouses are nonambulatory, the National Meat Association says, but veterinarians normally give the non-walking pigs a few hours to determine whether their problem is disease or just stress, fatigue, stubbornness or being overheated from the trip to the plant.
Although a federal judge agreed and blocked the law, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the hold. The justices seemed ready to overturn that ruling.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act allows a federal meat inspector to examine and then determine whether a downed animal is fit to be slaughtered for meat. It also says states cannot add requirements "in addition to or different than" its requirements.
"When the federal law says you can, that pre-empts the rule from the states that says you can't," said Chief Justice John Roberts.
Federal law "says in so many words no additional requirements," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "And I don't know how you can get around the fact that this is an additional requirement." The justices are expected to rule soon no the case, which is National Meat Association v. Harris, 10-224.