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Supreme Court Puts Sick Cows Back on the Menu

By Nasima Hossain
Public Health Advocate

The Supreme Court made a dangerous decision on behalf of consumers this week. On Monday the Supreme Court overturned a California law that required the euthanization of downed livestock at federally inspected slaughterhouses to keep this meat out of the nation’s food system. Downed or downer animals are cows, pigs, goats, or chickens who show signs of immobility. Usually the animal cannot stand on its own when it reaches the slaughterhouse, often due to illness or injury. Downed cows are particularly dangerous as research shows that they may have mad cows disease or E. coli. These animals should never be used for food as they can pass infections onto humans causing injury or death. The California law was a smart rule that protected consumers from dangerous meat - this decision by the Supreme Court was a mistake and will put potentially diseased meats back on our dinner table.

California strengthened their state regulations against slaughtering so-called "downer" animals for meat after the 2008 release of an undercover Humane Society of the United States video which showed workers abusing cows at a slaughterhouse. The video showed workers at the slaughterhouse in Southern California using a forklift to prod downed cows to get up to walk to slaughter. Some workers also used a high-pressure hose to shoot water up cows’ nostrils to force them to get up, or kicked and prodded the animals. The supervisor at the plant was sentenced to 270 days in jail for animal abuse and the plant was shut down.

The California law was stronger than current federal laws and required these animals be euthanized in a humane way and be kept out of the food system. Under the California law the ban on buying, selling and slaughtering of downer animals extended to pigs, sheep and goats. Essentially the California law was keeping all meat safe for its consumers. Three percent of pigs that show up at slaughterhouses are non-ambulatory and under Californian law would have been euthanized. Pork producers sued to stop the law, saying it interfered with federal laws that require inspections of downed livestock before determining whether they can be used for food. This is a clear case of special interests - in this case, pork producers - wining over consumer health and safety.

The Californian law was clearly protecting consumers and ensuring the meat that enters the American food system was safe. The Supreme Court’s decision will deprive states of the ability to better protect their citizens from sick and disabled animals entering our food system. Now thanks to special interests, animals that become sick or stressed during transit to slaughterhouses will be killed for food and potentially may prove hazardous to the American public.

Yet again special interests are working to weaken smart regulations designed to better protect public health and safety, all to protect their profits.

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