U.S. Supreme Court will hear dispute over California’s pork-sale restrictions

By: - April 6, 2022 6:00 am
A hog rests on a farm

Hogs on a farm near Elma, Iowa. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a California law that bars the sale of pork in the state if the animals are raised in confined conditions violates the U.S. Constitution’s protection of interstate commerce. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear pork producers’ legal challenge of a California law that restricts the sale of pork in that state.

The lawsuit, filed by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), attempts to nullify California’s voter-approved ballot measure dealing with hog confinement.

The measure, approved by California voters in 2018, imposes restrictions on pork sold within that state with the intent of ensuring that breeding pigs have enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. One element of the law defines as “cruel confinement” a breeding-pig enclosure that provides less than 24 square feet — the equivalent of a 6-foot by 4-foot area — of usable floor space per pig.

The law applies to all of the pork sold in California, regardless of where it was raised.

In Wisconsin, which ranks 19th among pork producing states, the Wisconsin Pork Producers Association supports the challenge to the California law. As in other states, pork producers here would be affected if the restrictions are upheld, allowing California to “reach across state lines in this way,” said Keri Retallick of the pork producers group. “We are hopeful that the NPPC and AFBF arguments will prevail.”

The California restriction is aimed at hog CAFOS, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which have sparked controversy in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union has not taken a position on the lawsuit. “Our policy that we advocate around comes from the grassroots membership, and we don’t have policy around this particular issue yet,” said the organization’s communications director, Danielle Endvick.

The farmers union’s animal welfare policy states that farmers and activists have a shared concern about animal welfare. The policy focuses on informing members of the public and animal rights activists “on the true nature of animal care on family farms” and notes that family farms “base their surival on the personal and humane care to their animals.”

Iowa, the nation’s top hog producer, accounts for nearly one-third of the hogs raised in America. One lawsuit has alleged that Iowa producers collectively would be forced to spend “tens of millions of dollars” a year to raise breeding pigs in compliance with Proposition 12’s restrictions.

In July, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 for the state of California, finding that laws that increase the costs of compliance do not necessarily constitute a significant burden on interstate commerce.

The ruling was one of at least 10 legal setbacks for agribusiness groups that have gone to court in an effort to weaken some provisions of Proposition 12. The courts have noted that producers in California are not given an unfair advantage under the law since they and their competitors in other states all have to adhere to the same minimum space allotment standards to sell pork, eggs or veal in the California market.

Producers in Iowa can opt to raise their animals in a manner that’s consistent with Iowa’s own, less restrictive requirements, but if they want to sell those products in California, they must adhere to California’s food safety and animal welfare standards.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig praised the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case. “This decision is the first step in preserving the rights of our farmers, protecting the well-being of our livestock and ensuring consumers have access to affordable food,” Naig said.

Calling California’s regulations “heavy-handed and unnecessary,” Naig said that under the U.S. Constitution, “Only the federal government holds the power to regulate interstate and international commerce.”

He said Iowa farmers take “great pride in caring for their animals” and producing high-quality, affordable meat.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action, stated in a news release that the courts have repeatedly affirmed that California’s anti-confinement law “is a proper exercise of state authority.”

He said since there are no federal laws to protect animals on the farm, a Supreme Court ruling against the state of California may result in “dozens of state laws nullified that restrict the sale of shark fins, ivory (and) kangaroo parts.”

Such an outcome, he said, “would leave farm animals with no protections at all – not at the local, state, or federal level. The fate of farm animals would rest entirely in the hands of agribusiness companies that have pioneered and practiced extreme confinement of farm animals and made those forms of exploitation routine.”

Three years after voters passed Proposition 12, it went into effect on Jan. 1, though some elements took effect earlier. Proposed regulations have been challeged as incomplete by animal-welfare groups in a lawsuit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture. A state court has stayed some elements of Proposition 12 until the state fully implements its regulations.

Pork producers have argued the California restrictions will lead to higher prices for bacon. Recently, however, the Biden administration has called out price-gouging triggered by “the greed of meat conglomerates.”

Last August, Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst co-sponsored the Exposing Agricultural Trade Suppression Act, which would prohibit states from “interfering” with food production in other states.

The Wisconsin Examiner’s Erik Gunn contributed to this report.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Iowa Capital Dispatch Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.