National Meat Association v. Harris

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided National Meat Association v. Harris.


Whether the Federal Meat Inspection Act—under which slaughterhouses must separate animals that cannot walk on their own and inspect them for diseases—preempts a state law that bans any slaughtering of such animals and requires their immediate euthanization.

Oral argument: 
November 9, 2011

In response to the largest beef recall in United States history, California amended its Penal Code to ban the slaughtering of nonambulatory animals and require that slaughterhouses euthanize any such animals on their premises. The National Meat Association filed suit arguing that the Federal Meat Inspection Act expressly preempts California’s ban on the slaughter of nonambulatory animals, and that the Federal Meat Inspection Act’s historical context demonstrates Congress’s intent to exercise exclusive authority over the meatpacking industry. Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and animal protection organizations (including the Humane Society of the United States) propose a narrow understanding of slaughterhouse “operations” and argue that the California ban does not undermine the Federal Meat Inspection Act’s purpose. The outcome of this case will affect the slaughterhouses’ ability to examine animals for disease before euthanizing them and states’ ability to regulate areas where general federal law already exists.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

The Federal Meat Inspection Act ("FMIA"), as amended by the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, comprehensively regulates the "premises, facilities, and operations" of slaughterhouses where meat is prepared for human consumption. Since the passage of the Wholesome Meat Act, the FMIA has expressly preempted state regulations "in addition to, or different than" federal regulations. 21 U.S.C. § 678. Thus, for almost half a century, a uniform federal regulatory framework has safeguarded animal and human health and safety. In 2008, California passed a law - the provisions of which were later considered and expressly rejected by federal regulators - requiring federally-inspected slaughterhouses to "immediately euthanize" any nonambulatory animal on its premises, thereby eliminating important federally-required ante-mortem inspection of possibly diseased animals.

The questions presented in this case are:

  1. Did the Ninth Circuit err in holding that a “presumption against preemption” requires a “narrow interpretation” of the FMIA's express preemption provision, in conflict with this Court's decision in Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 540 (1977) that the provision must be given “a broad meaning”?

  2. When federal food safety and humane handling regulations specify that animals (here, swine) which are or become nonambulatory on federally inspected premises are to be separated and held for observation and further disease inspection, did the Ninth Circuit err in holding that a state criminal law which requires that such animals not be held for observation and disease inspection, but instead be immediately euthanized, was not preempted by the FMIA?
  3. Did the Ninth Circuit err in holding more generally that a state criminal law which states that no slaughterhouse may buy, sell, receive, process, butcher, or hold a nonambulatory animal is not a preempted attempt to regulate the “premises, facilities, [or] operations” of federally-regulated slaughterhouses?


Concerns regarding meat safety arose in 2008 after the Humane Society, a respondent in this case, released a video that showed nonambulatory cows being kicked, electrocuted, and dragged by chains at Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in California. SeeNat’l Meat Ass’n v. Brown, 559 F.3d 1093, 1096 (9th Cir. 2010). Nonambulatory animals are those that cannot move without assistance. See id.After the Humane Society released this video, some public health professionals cautioned that such “downer” animals have a higher probability of being diseased. See id.Together, these events prompted a massive beef recall. See id.

After this recall, the State of California amended its Penal Code, banning the receipt and slaughter of nonambulatory animals (in §§ 599(f)(a)–(c)) and requiring humane handling of them (in § 559f(e)). SeeCal. Penal Code § 599(f). Further, the statute required slaughterhouses to immediately euthanize any nonambulatory animals. See id. § 599(f)(c).

Prior to the effective date of the amendments, Petitioner National Meat Association (“NMA”), a trade association of swine livestock packers and processers, filed this suit against the State of California to enjoin the application § 599(f) to federally inspected slaughterhouses. See Nat'l Meat Ass'n. v. Harris 559 F.3dat 1096. NMA argued that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA”) preempts § 599(f), and that the amended provisions violate the dormant commerce clause and are vague. 1097. The district court granted the preliminary injunction, finding that the California law was preempted. See id.

California and the Humane Society brought an interlocutory appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. SeeNat'l Meat Ass'n v. Harris 559 F.3d at 1097. The Ninth Circuit maintained that, in order to receive a preliminary injunction, a party must demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm in the absence of the preliminary relief sought, and a balance of interests that tips in that party’s favor. See id.The Ninth Circuit determined that the NMA is likely to succeed on its preemption claim regarding § 599(f)(e), which details the requirements for humane handling of livestock. See id. at 1101. However, the Ninth Circuit also found that the NMA is unlikely to succeed on its claims regarding §§ 559(f)(a)–(c), which concern the ban on receipt and slaughter of nonambulatory animals. See id.The Ninth Circuit found that the NMA had not demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable injury or that the balance of interests tips in its favor. See id.The Ninth Circuit determined the district court abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction and vacated the district court’s ruling. See id. at 1102.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 27, 2011.


The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA”), 21 U.S.C. § 601 et seq – which, among other things, requires that slaughterhouses hold nonambulatory animals for observation and disease inspection – preempts a California state law, California Penal Code § 599(f), which requires nonambulatory animals to be immediately euthanized. Congress may expressly preempt state law by including a preemption provision within federal law. See Nat’l Meat Ass’n v. Brown, 599 F.3d 1093, 1097 (9th Cir. 2010). Congress may also impliedly preempt state law by expressing an intent to exercise exclusive authority over a particular area—e.g., when federal law cannot be followed without violating state law. See id. Petitioner National Meat Association (“NMA”) argues that FMIA’s preemption provision demonstrates Congress’s “clear and manifest” intent that federal law set the exclusive standards for slaughterhouse operations. See Brief for Petitioner, National Meat Association at 21. In contrast, the State of California argues that there is a strong presumption against preemption, and that § 599(f) is not preempted by the FMIA. See Brief for State Respondentsat 17–19.

Defining “Operations” within the context of the Federal Meat Inspection Act

The NMA argues that the FMIA expressly preempts the California law because it contains an express provision that prohibits states from making requirements “in addition to, or different than those made under” the FMIA “with respect to premises, facilities and operations” of slaughterhouses. See Brief for Petitioner at 28. The FMIA and corresponding regulations establish an extensive slaughterhouse-inspection plan designed to prevent the shipment of unsafe meat in interstate and foreign commerce. See 29. As part of that system, the FMIA imposes certain requirements on slaughterhouse “operations,” including guidelines for handling nonambulatory animals. See 30. During an initial inspection before entering the slaughterhouse, animals found to be nonambulatory must be slaughtered separately so they can be examined by federal inspectors. See 30–31. Whereas California law requires immediate euthanization and disposal of nonambulatory animals, the FMIA allows slaughterhouses to sell meat from animals initially found nonambulatory as long as the meat passes federal inspection. See 30–32, 47–48. The NMA argues that California Penal Code § 599(f) imposes “additional” and “different” requirements on slaughterhouse “operations” that clearly fall within the scope of the FMIA. See 29.

Respondent Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, argues that the statute’s preemption provision is not dispositive because it has a limited scope that does not encompass the California law. SeeBrief for State Respondent, Kamala D. Harris at 16–17, 19. Harris further argues that the provision must be interpreted narrowly because there is a strong presumption against preemption, especially when the law concerns an area traditionally within the police powers of the states. See 17–18. According to Harris, the NMA interprets the preemption provision too broadly. See 20. Harris argues that this interpretation would encompass even state regulation of animal treatment and therefore does not comport with the presumption against preemption. See 20–21. Furthermore, Harris maintains that the preemption provision reserves to the states the authority to regulate “other matters,” provided that the regulation is “consistent with FMIA”. See 20. Harris concedes that § 599(f) applies to the slaughterhouse’s premises, but argues that does not automatically imply that it regulates all slaughterhouse operations. See 21.

The Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary, the Human Farming Association, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (collectively “animal protection organizations”) argue that slaughterhouse “operations” should be interpreted to encompass a limited range of activities. SeeBrief for Non-State Respondents, Animal Protection Organizations at 32–33. The animal protection organizations argue that the FMIA does not attempt to solve every foreseeable problem presented by the meatpacking industry. See id. at 33. The animal protection organizations contend thatthe FMIA’s preemption provision does not apply to activities outside the scope of operations covered by the FMIA. See 34. The animal protection organizations maintain that FMIA’s restrictions on slaughtering nonambulatory animals apply only when the animal is “offered for slaughter.” See id. at 35. The animal protection organizations argue that § 599(f) restricts the slaughterhouse’s exercise of discretion regarding whether or not to offer the animal for slaughter; the animal protection organizations maintain that the California law applies before federal restrictions do and thus falls outside the scope of FMIA. See 35.

The NMA contends that the presumption against preemption does not apply because Congress has expressed “clear and manifest” intent to exercise authority over slaughterhouse operations. See Brief for Petitioner at 52. The NMA argues that the Supreme Court should equate the term “operation” with “practical work.” See 33. The practical work of slaughterhouses includes receiving and slaughtering animals, according to the NMA, and those operations are subject to requirements imposed by the FMIA. See id. The NMA further argues that the record keeping exception in the FMIA demonstrates Congress’s intent to articulate this practical understanding. See id. at 34–35. The preemption provision creates an exception for recordkeeping of slaughterhouse sales, thereby allowing states to exercise concurrent jurisdiction over those records. See id.The NMA argues that it would be unnecessary for Congress to create an exception for recordkeeping if slaughterhouse “operations” had the restrictive meaning suggested by Harris. See id.NMA maintains that by creating the record keeping exception, Congress signaled that slaughterhouse “operations” include recordkeeping and, consequently, sales, because it would be absurd to suggest that slaughterhouse “operations” include recordkeeping but not sales. See id.The NMA argues that such exceptions within the preemption provision demonstrate Congress’s intent to incorporate a broad interpretation of slaughterhouse “operations.” See 33–35. For example, NMA asserts that states have concurrent authority to prevent distribution of “adulterated” or “misbranded” meat; however, Congress limited that authority to articles outside of federally-inspected slaughterhouses, thereby reiterating its intent to exercise exclusive authority over this realm. See id. at 36–37.

Intent and Purpose Behind the Federal Meat Inspection Act

The NMA argues that the FMIA’s purpose and historical context demonstrate that Congress intended to preempt statutes like California Penal Code § 599(f). See Brief for Petitionerat 39–41. Congress enacted the first meat inspection act amidst public outcry created by Upton Sinclair’s portrayal of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in The Jungle, later enacting more comprehensive regulations because state police powers were insufficient to meet federal standards. See 41–42. The NMA argues that Congress intended to promote national uniformity and to assert near-exclusive federal authority over the meat-packing industry. See 42–43.

The animal protection organizations argue that the FMIA does not contemplate the level of national uniformity proposed by the NMA. SeeBrief for Non-State Respondents at 52–53. The animal protection organizations maintain that states have the authority to regulate many phases of meat production and distribution, including animal treatment and transportation. See id. The animal protection organizations argue that states have expansive regulatory authority over the industry, and that, therefore, Congress lacks exclusive jurisdiction. See id.Furthermore, the animal protection organizations argue that protecting consumers in this industry does not require national uniformity. See id.The animal protection organizations recognize that requiring the disposal of nonambulatory animals may affect slaughterhouse profits, but argue that the law does not undermine the federal regulatory scheme. See 54. The animal protection organizations contend that states could effectively prevent nonambulatory animals from ever reaching the slaughterhouse by imposing restrictions before the slaughterhouse receives the animals. See id. 44. The animal protection organizations maintain that the Court should not interpret the FMIA as preempting a state law that could otherwise be enacted by simply shifting the location of the initial inspection. See 44–45.

California Attorney General Harris argues that the NMA distorts the FMIA’s purpose. See Brief for State Respondent at 22. Harris contends that Congress did not intend to restrict the type of meat that enters interstate commerce, but sought rather to ensure that consumers receive unadulterated, disease-free meat. See id.Mindful of that purpose, Harris maintains that slaughterhouse “operations” include only those activities that relate to the slaughter of animals for human consumption. See id.Harris argues that the California law “categorically disqualifies” nonambulatory animals from slaughterhouse “operations,” and thus falls outside the FMIA’s scope. See id. Harris maintains that states undoubtedly have the authority to prevent certain species from being slaughtered, and that states therefore also have the authority to ban the slaughter of nonambulatory animals. See id. at 19. Harris contends that banning nonambulatory animals from slaughterhouses, like preventing the use of horses and dogs for human consumption, precludes those animals from becoming part of slaughterhouse “operations.” See id.

Even assuming that states have the authority to prevent the slaughter of certain species, the NMA contends that nonambulation is symptom of a condition or disease, not a specific type of animal. See Brief for Petitioner at 58. The NMA acknowledges that, if a state bans the slaughter of certain species, the slaughterhouse can stop that species from ever reaching federal premises. See 59–60. However, NMA asserts that nonambulation may first develop or be detected on federal premises. See id. at 59. In those cases, slaughterhouses cannot comply with the California law until the animal reaches the federally-inspected slaughterhouse. See 59–60.


In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA”) preempts California’s ban on slaughtering nonambulatory animals. Petitioner National Meat Association (“NMA”) argues that the FMIA unambiguously preempts California Penal Code § 599(f), and that Congress intended to exercise exclusive control over the meatpacking industry. See Brief for Petitioner, National Meat Association at 27–28, 42. Respondents Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, and animal protection organizationscontend that the state law is not preempted because Congress left room for states to regulate certain aspects of the meatpacking industry as long as the regulations remain consistent with the FMIA. SeeBrief for State Respondents Kamala Harris and the State of California at 20.

Impact on Public Health

The American Association of Swine Veterinarians (“AASV”) cautions that California’s requirement of immediately euthanizing nonambulatory animals may pose public health risks. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Association of Swine Veterinarians, et al. (“AASV”) in Support of Petitioner at 6. AASV argues that the ante-mortem inspection of nonambulatory animals is an important part of the federal meat inspection process. See id. at 7. AASV contends that federal law establishes an ante-mortem inspection process thatallows veterinarians to detect and prevent disease outbreaks. See id. at 7–8. It argues that California’s provisions, which force veterinarians to rely solely on post-mortem inspections, may increase risks of disease outbreaks. See id. at 13–14. The United States Chamber of Commerce similarly noted that many symptoms of disease can only be detected in live animals and thus that ante-mortem inspection of animals is crucial in protecting the safety of the food supply. See Brief of Amici Curiae Chamber of Commerce of the United States (“Chamber of Commerce”) in Support of Petitioner at 27.

In contrast, animal protection organizations point out that FMIA allows slaughterhouses to remove their nonambulatory animals without first subjecting them to ante-mortem inspection. See Brief for Non-State Respondents at 54. Therefore, they argue, while veterinarians may be able to conduct ante-mortem inspections and submit an early report of an outbreak risk under FMIA procedures, it is also likely that they will not. See id.Thus, such a benefit has never been the central goal of the FMIA. See id.Moreover, animal protection organizations emphasize that the symptoms of most diseases are identifiable through post-mortem inspection. See id. at 56–57. California Attorney General Harris stresses that federal and state regulations both have the same goal of ensuring the safety of meat production, and that §599(f) would adequately achieve this purpose. See Brief for State Respondents at 27.

Balancing of Federal-State Power

The Professors of Preemption Law (“Professors”) argue that upholding California’s amendment is important in protecting the principles of federalism. See Brief of Amici Curiae Professors of Preemption Law in Support of Respondent at 16. They emphasize that the Constitution deliberately created a balance of power between the federal and state governments, and that the Supremacy Clause only allows federal law to supersede state law when Congress has so provided as part of its lawmaking power. See id. at 16–18. Here, while the Congress demonstrated its intention for the FMIA to preempt some state law through its express preemption provision, the Professors argue that it has not shown that it wants to keep states from exercising any traditional state authority in the area. See id. at 20. The Professors contend that California should be able to exercise its authority in matters that the FMIA does not explicitly discuss, and that a decision to the contrary would be allowing the federal government to overreach. See id. at 20, 17–18.

The Chamber of Commerce argues that federalism concerns are unwarranted because the FMIA is valid federal law carrying the power to displace state law under the Supremacy Clause. SeeBrief of Chamber of Commerce at 17. The Chamber of Commerce argues that the Supremacy Clause enables federal law to trump state law in federal-state conflicts: requiring Congress to explicitly state a preemptive purpose is unwarranted. See id. at 18, 20. The Chamber of Commerce stresses that Congress cannot be expected to consider every case in which its enactments may overlap with state regulations, and that imposing such a burden on Congress would lead to over-inclusive, ambiguous provisions. See id. 21–22.


The Supreme Court will determine whether the Federal Meat Inspection Act preempts California Penal Code § 599(f), which bans the slaughter of nonambulatory animals. The Court will determine whether slaughterhouse “operations,” as defined in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, encompass pre-slaughter animal inspection. Petitioner National Meat Association argues that slaughterhouse “operations” include a broad range of activities, including those related to receiving and slaughtering animals. Respondent California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and animal protection organizations argue for a narrow interpretation of slaughterhouse “operations.” The Respondents assert that California could undoubtedly impose the same regulations before animals reach federally-inspected slaughterhouses, and that the state should therefore be permitted to impose inspection procedures at the slaughterhouse itself. Furthermore, the Respondents contend that the California ban does not conflict with the FMIA’s purpose: to ensure that meat is safe for human consumption. A decision in favor of the National Meat Association will limit the ability of states to regulate the use of ante-mortem examinations on slaughterhouse premises. Alternatively, if the Supreme Court determines that the FMIA does not preempt the California law, California will be able to require the immediate euthanization of nonambulatory animals.

Edited by 

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