Lost behind yesterday’s sexier headlines about the Supreme Court’s unanimous privacy ruling on warrantless electronic surveillance, was the setback they dealt California’s unhappiest cows – and thus the nation’s food supply. The bovines broke even on the day, however, based on reports that well-treated cows produce demonstrably more and healthier milk. Those dairy farmers may be onto something, even if the Supremes are not.
The California ruling grew out of the Humane Society of the United States’ undercover exposee of brutal practices in federally inspected slaughterhouses. In videos, so-called “downer” cattle – animals too sick to stand and stagger to their fates under their own power -- were shown being dragged, shock-prodded and even rammed by forklifts in monstrously cruel attempts upright them. (That there exists the special term “downers” to describe this gruesome phenomenon suggests its frequency, but I digress.) Watching it is enough to put the most ardent whoppeholic off his feed.
In response, California enacted an anti-cruelty law that banned the sale of meat from downer livestock (pigs, goats and sheep, too), and demanded that such suffering animals be euthanized post haste. The ban was challenged, naturally, and the Ninth Circuit upheld the state rule. California has, after all, led the nation routinely in passing laws that exceed the minimum protections provided by federal statutes in such diverse fields as vehicle emissions, climate change and employee welfare.
This time the high court unanimously sided with the meat-packing industry, however. The technical basis for the Court’s ruling was the Constitutional doctrine of preemption: although there are some fields of law where federal and state regulation may co-exist -- in others, the feds expressly reserve all regulatory power to themselves – they preempt the field. The federal Meat Inspection Act falls into the latter category, specifically forbidding state rules that vary the national regime. So despite the Appeals Court’s having labeled the government’s argument to be “hogwash,” (yes, legal scholars, the author was Judge Kozinski), the Supremes sided with Big Meat.
My problem with this ruling is that the law rests on two foundations: food safety and humane considerations. While the feds may have vested all safety considerations in themselves and their too-few inspectors (bone appetit!), humane considerations remain a legitimate object of state law. And these animals were in agony, and will again suffer today – and now they’ll suffer tomorrow, too.
While I understand the general desirability of one national standard for many things that don’t feel pain, it is hard for me to understand what practical market disruption would really be caused by limiting CA’s contribution to more humanely produced, arguably healthier beef and pork. It’s no answer to say that it doesn’t matter, since these critters will end up as food, anyway – we’re all going to shed this mortal coil, after all, and the means of our departure matters to every living being.
There’s a concept brought to the animal welfare debate by Dr. Bernie Rollin, of Colorado State University. It’s what he calls “Telos:” the inherent nature of every animal. Telos is what makes “fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly,” in his words. If Telos is respected in the nurture and slaughter of food animals, well, as above, we’re all going to die someday. But despite the best efforts of the local cheese lobby to convince us otherwise, most cattle in our industrial ag, federally homogenized system are treated very, very poorly. They are confined in the filth of over-crowded feedlots, fed an unnatural, indigestible diet, and over-dosed with antibiotics to prevent epidemics from breaking out in such squalid conditions. To most meat packers, Telos might as well be a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
Contrast that glum news with reports out of Ohio in USA Today that dairy cows provided with waterbeds (!) on which to recline, give significantly more milk production, with half the pathogens of “normal” milk. Now, I’m not saying that Telos requires that cows get waterbeds, but I am saying the finding above deserves greater scrutiny, and perhaps more respect than the smirking “weird news” treatment it is so far receiving. Maybe that reciprocity concept of true Animal Husbandry – where the rancher or dairyman was only as good as his herd’s condition – is due for a revival? As the Ohio farmer said: “we take care of them, and they take care of us.”
Tell it to the Supreme Court, Congress and the USDA.