Meat groups win round in food safety case

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Pigs unable to stand can be slaughtered for human consumption, Fresno federal judge rules.

Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009


Pigs that can't stand up on their own may still be butchered and their meat sold for human consumption despite a state law designed to prevent that, a federal judge ruled Thursday in Fresno.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, made it illegal for anyone to butcher and sell animals too sick to stand. But slaughterhouses argued that the law was too broad and caused meat from healthy animals to go to waste.

At issue was whether the state law could take precedence over a 102-year-old federal law also designed to protect food safety. U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill ruled that it couldn't.

In his 21-page ruling, O'Neill stopped the state from enforcing the law against swine slaughterhouses.

The state legislation was approved last summer after the largest beef recall in history. That recall came after the Humane Society of the United States secretly videotaped animal abuse at a Southern California slaughterhouse -- including a man dragging sick cows and shocking them.

But the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute challenged the law, saying federal law preempts state law.

O'Neill agreed, citing the 1907 Federal Meat Inspection Act.

"The very purpose of the FIMA is to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply and to minimize the risk to public health from potentially dangerous food and drug products," O'Neill wrote.

American Meat Association spokeswoman Janet Riley praised the decision.

"We do believe that the argument for federal pre-emption is strong," Riley said. "It seems the judge is sending a positive signal."

Riley said pigs can become stressed and fatigued, especially after being moved. When they arrive at a processing plant, they might not want to walk, but are not necessarily sick. If given a chance to rest, they often walk, she said.

Under the state law, however, such pigs might be euthanized and thrown away, which potentially could waste good meat. Federal law, Riley said, already requires a veterinarian to be on site. That person is required to examine pigs and determine their health.

The slaughter of sick or "downed" cattle is already prohibited by federal law and was not part of the challenge.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown -- the lead defendant in the case -- will consult with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office about "the appropriate next steps," spokesman Scott Gerber said. The state could appeal O'Neill's decision.

Gerber said it is important to "take steps to ensure that our food supply is safe."

Joining the state in support of the revamped law is the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Humane Farming Association, Farm Sanctuary Inc., and the Humane Society of the United States. O'Neill last week granted their request to intervene on the state's side.

Animal advocates think sick pigs may be entering the food chain, and are also concerned that ruling's such as O'Neill will likely derail the entire law.

John Harris, a west-side rancher and CEO and chairman of Harris Farms, supports O'Neill's ruling, even though he is a cattleman and doesn't deal with pigs.

"I think O'Neill did the right thing," Harris said. "It is nice to have states' rights. It is an important tenet of the Constitution. But on food safety, it should be federal pre-emption."

The legal battle isn't over. O'Neill's ruling is preliminary. But if the state doesn't appeal the ruling, the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute will ask O'Neill to make it permanent.



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