The state law,amended in 2008 in the aftermath of an investigation at the Westland/Hallmark plant in Chino, has created a legal showdown between the nationwide meatpacking industry and advocates for farm animals.
At issue is whether California can create its own laws to safeguard its food supply and prevent farm animal abuse, while preempting federal law which regulates slaughterhouses and prevents the slaughter and processing of cattle which cannot walk, according to court briefs.
The issue is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 9, according to the court.
A Humane Society investigation in 2008 at the Chino plant, at Yorba and Schaefer avenues, uncovered mistreatment of downed cattle with forklifts and high-pressure hoses.
Legislation banned "downer" cattle, those which cannot walk, from entering the food supply for human consumption. According to experts, the risk of contracting mad cow disease increased by using downed cattle in the food supply.
California legislators amended state law in 2008 to make it illegal for anyone to sell and process animals which were too sick to stand and for those animals to be immediately euthanized.
Meat industry representatives, which filed a lawsuit against the state in National Meat Association v. Harris, argue that California law attempts to preempt federal law, takes a cow issue and applies it to other animals, and could raise costs for meat processors.
"The thing about the two laws is that they're in conflict, which puts a processor in a Catch 22 position," explained Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Meat Association.
The NMA seeks to maintain a uniform standard of food safety, not a patchwork of laws established by states. The language is clear, said Russell, prohibiting states from enacting laws that differ from federal meat law, which has been in place for decades.
"It's what's going to protect the consumers and what makes the most sense for business," said Russell. "It's just a rational system."
The non-profit Humane Society of the United States, which filed a merit brief in the case, supports California's right to create its own law.
"We think it's clearly within the state constitutional protections to pass a law to stop the abusive treatment of sick cattle and also to protect Californians from unsafe food," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.
California passed its law almost unanimously, and it was signed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, according to HSUS.
"It was a tremendous bipartisan effort to crack down on an abusive livestock handling practice in California," Pacelle explained.
The NMA also says California's law creates an unfair situation for handlers of swine, or hogs, setting them up to be prosecuted. Hogs behave differently than cattle and will lie down if they are tired, Russell said.
Steven J. Wells, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based lawyer, represents the NMA, while state Deputy Attorney General Susan K. Smith represents the state.