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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It's a jungle out there (all over again)

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States (as we fondly call SCOTUS) decided that the great state of California cannot enforce its own standards for the "processing" and "packaging" of meat. 

I use the quotations because "processing" and "packaging" are what the meat industry and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) use as euphemisms for "killing" and "butchering" of animals, respectively. 

I digress
The SCOTUS case, National Meat Association v. Harris, was, at its core, a response to the undercover video footage of the mistreatment of dairy cows at the Hallmark Slaughter plant.  

Perhaps one of the most infamous and groundbreaking undercover videos from factory farms and meat processing plants, the investigation by the Humane Society of the United States led to the biggest beef recall in U.S. history: 143 million pounds of beef. 

Following the recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a Rule that prohibited the slaughter of cows who were too sick or in too much pain to move: the cows who were filmed in the video. 

Does this sound familiar? 
That's because it was this kind of undercover work that led to the initial public outcry about how our food is "processed" and "packaged," and ultimately to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) over a century ago in 1906.

A quick history lesson
In the early 1900s, author and journalist Upton Sinclair went undercover at several Chicago meatpacking plants and reported back what he saw in The Jungle, a book that would change the way meat was processed and packaged. 

The horrors described in The Jungle outraged the public, much as the undercover videos do today. And from that horror was born the FMIA, a law intended to prevent sick animals from being slaughtered, and ensure that slaughterhouse facilities are clean and sanitary.

Fast Forward over 100 years 
And it does not seem that much has changed since the law to end unspeakable conditions at slaughterhouses was passed. The Hallmark video, much like The Jungle, led the federal government to act quickly. The new FSIS Rule issued by President Obama is the millennial equivalent to FMIA.

However, when the FMIA passed over 100 years ago, it was supposed to regulate the slaughter of all animals, and the 2009 FSIS rule only accounted for cows, not other animals that are slaughtered for our food -- such as sheep, goats, chickens, and of course pigs. 

And here is where it is important to note the impetus behind the FSIS Rule. As much as we would like to think that President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack were thinking about the lives and deaths of cows, they were not. 

They were worried about a crazy thing called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease because it is a disease whose original host is a cow, but that can be transmitted to humans, much like Swine Flu, Avian Flu, or that Super Bug all those health advocates are warning us about. 

Yet, the administration contended that only cows can get degenerative illnesses that spread to humans, like Mad Cow Disease. The administration contended that only a sick cow could spread any illness (presumably including flu) to humans. 

But California felt quite the opposite  
Californians are famous for using their voices and their ballots to speak out on behalf of human health, animal welfare and other progressive reforms time and time again. And they did not think the FSIS Rule went far enough. 

So, California amended their laws to prohibit all "downer" animals from being slaughtered for food consumption. In fact, any animal who was too sick, weak or in too much pain to move must be humanely euthanized.  

So what do you do when you are a big corporation with millions of dollars at stake if you need something changed? You sue, which is exactly what the National Meat Association did on behalf of pork producers

The National Meat Association was fighting California tooth and nail
The NMA used their political power and money to bring their fight to the highest court in the country. Because even though hogs are not the most bountiful animal raised in California for human consumption, it sets a dangerous precedent for the meat industry if they have to make sure that all of their animals are able to walk before slaughter. 

Can you imagine? That would mean the U.S.meat industry would have to make sure they are humane guardians over the short lives of 37.6 million cows, 98.1 million pigs, 8.42 billion chickens, and 268 million turkeys (according to 2000 numbers).  

To put it plainly, it was much cheaper for them to sue California to ensure that this kind of behavior does not become a habit with other U.S. states. 

So what happens now?  
Well, we are not sure. The merits of the SCOTUS case rested on preemption. The SCOTUS ruled in favor of NMA (on behalf of the National Pork Producers) because slaughter of downer cows (and humane treatment of farm animals) is already supposed to be covered in the FMIA. 

But should preemption be what this case is really about?
I don't think so. But since it is, maybe President Obama and his administration should have another read of the FMIA and then go to YouTube and type in "factory farm" and watch video after video of sick and mistreated animals raised for our and our children's food. 

And then maybe they should redefine the terms of "humane" and "sick" that are spelled out in the FMIA. 

Because they are clearly not defined now. 

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