WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court seemed ready Wednesday to block a California law that would require euthanizing downed livestock at federally inspected slaughterhouses to keep the meat out of the nation's food system.
The court heard an appeal from the National Meat Association, which wants a 2009 state law blocked from going into effect. California barred the purchase, sale and butchering of animals that can't walk and required slaughterhouses under the threat of fines and jail time to immediately kill nonambulatory animals.
But justices said that encroached on federal laws that don't require immediate euthanizing.
"The federal law does not require me immediately to go over and euthanize the cow. Your law does require me to go over and immediately euthanize the cow. And therefore, your law seems an additional requirement in respect to the operations of a federally inspected meatpacking facility," Justice Stephen Breyer told a California lawyer.
California strengthened regulations against slaughtering so-called "downer" animals after the 2008 release of an undercover Humane Society video showing workers abusing cows at a Southern California slaughterhouse. Under California law, the ban on buying, selling and slaughter of "downer" cattle also extends to pigs, sheep and goats.
But pork producers sued to stop the law, saying the new law interfered with federal laws that require inspections of downed livestock before determining whether they can be used for meat.
"A slaughterhouse worker who is on the premises needs to have one set of rules that the worker follows," said Steven J. Wells, the association's lawyer.
About 3 percent of pigs that show up at slaughterhouses are nonambulatory, the National Meat Association says, but veterinarians normally give the nonwalking pigs a few hours to determine whether their problem is disease, or just stress, fatigue, stubbornness or being overheated from the trip to the slaughterhouse.
A federal judge agreed and blocked the law, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the hold.
The justices seemed ready to overturn that ruling.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act allows a federal meat inspector to examine and then determine whether a downed animal is fit to be slaughtered for meat. It also says states cannot add requirements "in addition to or different than" its requirements.
"When the federal law says you can, that pre-empts the rule from the states that says you can't," said Chief Justice John Roberts said.
"Well, the federal law doesn't say you must," said Susan K. Smith, a California deputy attorney general.
But the federal law "says in so many words no additional requirements," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "And I don't know how you can get around the fact that this is an additional requirement."
The justices are expected to rule soon.
The case is National Meat Association v. Harris, 10-224.