It wasn’t The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s scathing indictment of the meatpacking industry a century ago, but it was the next best thing.

In January 2008, the Humane Society of the United States released a clandestine video showing slaughterhouse workers abusing nonambulatory cowsÑso-called “downer animals”Ñat a California facility. The video triggered a massive recall of beef across the United States and brought about major changes in California law. In response to the video, the state legislature imposed strict regulations prohibiting slaughterhouses from buying or processing any downer animal. The law also required that nonambulatory animals be euthanized immediately.

Before the law could take effect, however, the National Meat Association (a trade association representing pork producers) filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the regulations. The district court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the new state regulations from taking effect, arguing that California’s law violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). FMIA governs slaughterhouse operations across the country and allows the slaughter of some downer animals. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in a decision that found no substantial conflict between the FMIA and the more restrictive state law.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week ruled that FMIA was the controlling authority after all. The California law, enacted to guarantee more humane treatment for sick and injured animals sent to slaughter, was out of work before it ever took effect.

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