Some have called it “Bacongate.” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa calls it the “war on breakfast.”
California’s Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, also known as Proposition 12, sets the strictest minimum confinement standards in the nation to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals.
After the law’s final requirements went into effect on Jan. 1, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento delayed enforcement of one provision, that gestating sows be confined in no less than 24 square feet of space. That requirement now won’t be enforced for 180 days, following the issuance of final regulations by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).
The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, meanwhile, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find the law unconstitutional, on grounds that it violates the Commerce Clause by subjecting out-of-state farms, where most of California’s pork comes from, to California regulations.
The North American Meat Institute filed a similar petition last summer. It was rejected.
Proposition 2, which was approved by California voters in 2008, prohibits several forms of animal confinement at California farms. Proposition 12, passed in 2018 with almost two-thirds of the vote, amended and expanded the earlier law, prohibiting the sale of uncooked meat products in California—no matter their state of origin—from animals “wrongly confined.”
In 2020, the first provisions of Proposition 12 became effective. They established minimum space requirements for egg-laying chickens and calves for veal production. This year’s deadline set the now-delayed minimum space standards for breeding pigs and also banned gestation crates, which are too small to allow pregnant pigs any room to move. The new standards also apply to hens. All eggs sold in the state must come from cage-free birds.
The law has been met with fierce debate and legal challenges by animal rights advocates who see it a major victory against cruelty to farm animals. Trade groups claim that Proposition 12 places a burden upon consumers, small farmers, and producers outside of the state.
“Ordinary Americans already know this is wrong,” Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, said of the practices now banned. “These laws are the most common-sense laws you can imagine.”
Balk was particularly concerned about the use of gestation cages, which are small enough that pregnant pigs can’t stand or turn around in them.
“It’s basically her being forced to live in her own coffin,” said Balk, referring to the female pigs.
Proponents of the law argue that it will improve food safety and animal rights. A 2020 United Nations report concluded that intensive confinement of livestock and factory farming have increased the risk for animal-based disease outbreaks. From the farmer’s perspective, research has also shown that not using gestation crates is “more economical,” leading to healthier and more valuable piglets.
Most egg producers have quietly complyed to the new cage-free requirements since the beginning of the year.
“Our members intend to comply with all new state laws governing hen housing as they are implemented,” a representative of United Egg Producers, the largest egg producer association in the country, said in a written statement.
Critics of the law from the meat industry, meanwhile, point to the California department of agriculture’s own assessment that the proposed regulations could increase prices for California consumers.
The department also found that costs to provide free and reduced-price school meals were expected to increase by almost $2 million next year, while meal costs for state prisons could increase by over $4 million per year. CDFA also acknowledged that California-based farmers may not be able to compete with out-of-state producers when selling their products outside of California.
Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producers Council, has written that the law was “flawed from the start” and that it undermined the food security of the whole nation.
Trade groups also question the constitutionality California’s laws that apply to producers from outside of California.
“For every pig raised in California, 235 are raised in Iowa,” wrote Sen. Grassley in an op-ed last month in The Des Moines Register. “I’m baffled that the Golden State should have any say in how Iowa hog producers raise pigs.”
The North American Meat Institute and American Farm Bureau Federation have joined forces with the National Pork Producers Council to file lawsuits against Proposition 12, with the support of several states, most notably in the Midwest. Both lawsuits were rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit, prompting the plaintiffs to petition Supreme Court.
The Jan. 25 Superior Court ruling in Sacramento, delaying enforcement of the confinement provision for sows, was in response to a separate lawsuit, brought by restaurant and grocery business groups frustrated by the lack of official guidance for Proposition 12 implementation.
The ballot initiative required CDFA publish regulations to implement the law by late 2019. However, the agency has yet not finalized rules regarding how the law will be enforced or how Proposition 12-compliant products are certified and labeled. Although the agency temporarily reopened its public consultation window in December for comments, final regulations could still be months away.
Plaintiffs in the case have written that the regulatory delay “places pork suppliers in an untenable position” and that small businesses and consumers will “pay the price of this uncertainty.”
However, the main focus of the debate is on how the new requirements affect small farms.
“Small farms across the country will be forced to make expensive and unnecessary changes to their operations, which will lead to more consolidation and higher food prices,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a written statement.
CDFA however argues that small, nonindustrial farming operations are more likely be in compliance with the law.
Chris Oliviero, general manger of Niman Ranch, a Colorado-based specialty meat company, said that he also finds arguments about small farms disingenuous. He pointed out that, in many agricultural states in the US, the number independent hog producers has declined while the number pig farmers has increased.
“This narrative that the conventional system that’s out there is a great fit for the majority of farmers is a false argument,” he said.
Oliviero said that the California market may open up to producers who are willing to comply with Proposition 12. This could provide new opportunities for independent farmers.
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Niman Ranch, which represents over 750 family meat producers across the country, was first to support Proposition 12 by filing a brief in court to counter a lawsuit brought to it by Iowa pork producers.
“For Niman, supporting Prop 12 was really easy,” said Oliviero. “We don’t believe there’s anything humane about keeping a sow in a seven-foot-by-two-foot crate.”
According to Oliviero, Niman’s vocal support of Proposition 12 is also meant to counter the narrative pushed by trade groups that their opposition reflects the feelings of all pork producers. If anything, he said, it’s drawn attention to the problematic practices of the hog industry. For Niman, being “out front” with Proposition 12 is just good business.
“I understand the concern,” Oliviero said, of the challenges pork farmers face having to make significant changes to their operations because of Proposition 12. “But the industry has proven time and time again that, when they put their minds to it, they’re more than capable of making big changes.”
Leah Campbell, an editorial fellow at Inside Climate News in Boston, is focused on disasters, agriculture and environmental change. She is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and has an academic background in environmental planning and Earth science.
Source: Inside Climate News