The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that federal meat inspection law supersedes state law, overturning a California appeals court ruling that would permit the ban on sales of downer or fatigued hogs.

Des Moines attorney Lance Lange says the Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling essentially affirms the earlier holding of the federal district court and reverses the ruling of a federal appeals court. The National Meat Association (NMA) brought a lawsuit in the federal district court in California challenging the state law. 

In an early stage of that federal case, a district court had issued a preliminary injunction stopping immediate enforcement of the law until a final decision had been made.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s injunction, indicating that the district court couldn’t stop enforcement of the state law.

So the NMA appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A Friend of the Court brief was filed by the National Pork Producers Council, American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the National Farmers Union, represented by Lange. The attorney, who works for the firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, says the Supreme Court’s decision essentially returns the case back to the district court in California so that it can proceed, taking into account the decision of the Supreme Court on the issue of federal pre-emption of state law.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is still significant. “Suffice it to say, this is a very important battle that was won as to whether or not the Federal Meat Inspection Act takes precedence over any state law that deals with the operations of a slaughterhouse, but the underlying lawsuit is still ongoing,” Lange says.

NPPC CEO Neil Dierks says the higher court got it right as it relates to the ramifications behind the case. “Meat inspection is there and this law had the potential of not allowing perfectly good meat to go into the meat supply. This law didn’t deal with food safety.”

Tom Burkgren, DVM, executive director of the AASV, adds “the California law could create a risk to animal health as well as criminalize the work of federal inspectors in California packing plants.”

“We have a robust federal inspection process to detect the emergence of animal diseases. For example, foot-and-mouth disease could be found at a packing plant with ante-mortem inspection. This California law would have interfered with that inspection,” he explains.

Also, non-ambulatory hogs pose no threat to food safety or public health and given adequate time to rest, will often recover and be able to walk.

“This is certainly a victory for the industry and it is very important to recognize that the federal meat inspection law is still in place and comprehensive enough to assure public health and animal welfare,” Burkgren says.