On January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in the case of National Meat Association v. Harris, No. 10-224.  

In its decision, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, reasoning that the Federal Meat Inspection Act (“FMIA”), 21 U.S.C 601, et seq., expressly preempts inconsistent state law. This decision is the latest in a long line of Supreme Court opinions that have historically and consistently affirmed the preemptive effect of of the FMIA. 

The FMIA governs the production and distribution of meat products in interstate commerce.  The Act is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (“FSIS”), and requires continuous, on-site inspection of all slaughter and processing establishments.  The FSIS is required, among other things, to ensure that all meat products are: (1) produced under sanitary conditions; (2) not adulterated; and (3) properly labeled.  

Under the FMIA, slaughter establishments are expressly permitted, under defined circumstances, to receive, hold and slaughter nonambulatory animals.  After slaughter, but prior to being used for human food, the carcasses of such animals must first be inspected by a FSIS inspector.  

The FMIA also contains an express preemption provision, 21 U.S.C. 678, which prohibits states from adopting any different or additional requirements than those imposed by the FMIA.  

Despite the existence of a federal law governing the treatment of nonambulatory animals in slaughter establishments, and the existence of an express preemption provision within the FMIA, the state of California nevertheless amended its penal code in 2008 to prohibit slaughter facilities from receiving, holding or butchering nonambulatory animals.  Because the federal standards under the FMIA and the new state law were inconsistent, the Nation Meat Association brought suit challenging the California law.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court confirmed that FMIA’s preemption clause “sweeps broadly,” and prohibits states from imposing  any additional or different (even if non-conflicting) requirements concerning slaughterhouse facilities or operations.  Because the State of California was attempting to govern in an area reserved exclusively for federal regulation, the Court held that the California law was preempted.

Thus, once again, the Supreme Court has made clear that the states are strictly prohibited from legislating in those areas already occupied by the FMIA.  

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