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October Term, 2011

January 23, 2012

Today the Supreme Court issued one decision, described below, of interest to the business community.

Federal Meat Inspection Act—Preemption

National Meat Association v. Harris, No. 10-224 (previously discussed in the June 27, 2011 Docket Report).

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA” or “Act”) contains an express preemption provision that prohibits States from imposing requirements with respect to the “facilities and operations” of any federally inspected slaughterhouse “which are in addition to, or different than,” the requirements imposed by the Act. 21 U.S.C. § 678. Today, in National Meat Association v. Harris, No. 10-224, the Supreme Court held that this provision preempts a California statute that—by making it illegal for any slaughterhouse to “receive,” “hold,” “butcher,” or otherwise “process” nonambulatory swine (Cal. Penal Code § 599f)—effectively requires that federally inspected slaughterhouses immediately euthanatize and dispose of nonambulatory swine upon their discovery.

Today’s decision is of immediate importance to the meat packing industry. It is also likely to be important to other regulated industries subject to similarly worded federal statutes, because it makes clear that a statutory prohibition on “additional or different” state requirements precludes even those state laws that do not directly conflict with federal requirements.

In a decision authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit’s judgment below. The Court began by reviewing the detailed federal scheme governing slaughterhouse operations. The FMIA’s implementing regulations establish rules that “apply from the moment a truck carrying livestock ‘enters, or is in line to enter,’ a slaughterhouse’s premises.” Slip op. 3. Under those rules, a federal inspector may designate a nonambulatory animal for immediate euthanasia and prohibit the sale of its carcass for human consumption, or may instead allow the animal’s slaughter and then permit the sale of its carcass for human consumption after a post-mortem inspection.

Noting that the FMIA’s preemption clause “sweeps widely” and prevents any state from imposing “any additional or different—even if non-conflicting—requirements” on slaughterhouse facilities or operations that fall within the scope of the Act, the Court concluded that the California statute was expressly preempted because it “compel[led]” slaughterhouses “to deal with nonambulatory pigs on their premises in ways that the federal Act and regulations do not.” Slip op. 6. Because the FMIA’s preemption clause covered “not just conflicting, but also different or additional state requirements” (id. at 7), it was irrelevant that federal law did not compel the processing of nonambulatory swine or require slaughterhouses to place such animals into the human food stream. The fact that federal law at least permitted their processing and sale while the California statute prohibited the same meant that the state law imposed “additional” requirements beyond those established under federal law. Id. at 7-8.

Finally, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s theory that the California statute was not preempted because it simply excluded an entire class of animals from the slaughtering process. Slip op. at 11. The Court noted that the scope of the FMIA extends to many animals on a slaughterhouse’s premises that are never destined for human consumption—for example, animals infected with cholera or nonambulatory cattle. Indeed, there was no dispute that the FMIA empowered USDA toissue regulations mandating the immediate euthanasia of nonambulatory swine. Id. at 13. The fact that the agency could have—but did not—promulgate an immediate-euthanasia rule under the Act was proof positive that the state statute fell within the FMIA’s scope, and accordingly was preempted inasmuch as it set forth additional requirements that the federal government had not yet seen fit to impose.

Mayer Brown filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America in support of petitioner.

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