January 23, 2012

Supreme Court Decides National Meat Assn. v. Harris

On January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court decided National Meat Association v. Harris, No. 10-224, holding that the preemption provision of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) expressly preempts a California law barring the purchase, sale, or processing of, or the sale of meat from, "nonambulatory animals."

The Federal Meat Inspection Act, 21 U. S. C. § 601 et seq., regu­lates a broad range of activities at slaughterhouses to ensure the safety of meat and the humane handling of animals.  The FMIA and its implementing regulations specifically address the treatment and processing of "nonambulatory" animals, that is, animals that cannot walk.  The FMIA's preemption clause, § 678, precludes states from impos­ing requirements that are "within the scope" of the FMIA, relate to slaughterhouse "premises, facilities and operations," and are "in ad­dition to, or different than those made under" the FMIA.   

In 2008, California enacted a statute prohibiting slaughterhouses from buying, selling, or processing nonambulatory animals or selling meat from nonambulatory animals.  Petitioner National Meat Association (NMA), a trade association rep­resenting meatpackers and processors, sued to enjoin enforcement of the California code provisions, arguing that the FMIA preempts application of the state law.  The District Court agreed, and granted the NMA a preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit re­versed, holding that section 678 did not preempt the state law because the state law regulates only "the kind of animal that may be slaughtered," not the inspection or slaughtering process itself.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that section 678 does preempt the California law.  The Court noted the broad scope of section 678's preemption language, which bars any additional or different state requirements for matters within the FMIA's scope, even if the state requirements do not conflict with the FMIA.  With respect to the California law, the Court noted that the FMIA permits slaughterhouses to engage in certain practices that the state code forbids, meaning that the state law necessarily imposes requirements different from or in addition to the FMIA's requirements.  The Court rejected an attempt to save the state law as it applied to off-site purchases of animals, noting that the preemption clause specifically includes a slaughterhouse's "operations," which would still be affected by the off-site application of the state law.  The Court also rejected the argument that the FMIA applies only to animals that are to be turned into meat, observing that the federal statute and its implementing regulations also address animals on slaughterhouse premises that will never be turned into meat. 

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Faegre Baker Daniels attorney Lance W. Lange filed an amicus brief for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Farmers Union in the Harris case.

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