California grocers file lawsuit to stop animal welfare law that could lead to bacon shortage

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ELLIOTT, Iowa — A coalition of California restaurants and grocery stores has filed a lawsuit to block the implementation of a new farm animal welfare law, adding to uncertainty over whether bacon and other fresh pork products will be much more expensive or in short supply in the state when the new rules go into effect on New Year’s Day.

The lawsuit is the latest step in a tumultuous three-year process to enact rules that were overwhelmingly approved by voters but remain in question even as the law is about to begin. Since voters approved Proposition 12 by a 2-to-1 ratio in November 2018, state officials have missed deadlines to issue specific regulations covering the humane treatment of animals that provide meat for the market. Californian.

Most pork producers haven’t made any changes to comply with the law. And now a coalition of business owners is asking for a delay of more than two years.

“We’re saying it won’t work,” said Nate Rose, spokesman for the California Grocers Association.

As groups work to delay the measure, the state has eased the transition to the new system. It allowed the sale of pork processed under the old rules and kept in cold storage in California in 2022, which could prevent shortages for weeks or even months.

As Josh Balk, who leads farm animal protection efforts at the Humane Society of the United States, puts it, California residents need not fear “the pork industry’s claims about ‘apocalypse”.

Simply put, the law requires breeding pigs, laying hens and veal calves to have adequate room to stand and turn around. For pigs, this means they can no longer be kept in cramped “gestation crates” and must have 24 square feet of usable space.

Niman Ranch Pork Company founder Paul Willis, left, talks to Iowa hog farmer Ron Mardesen at his farm, Dec. 2, 2021, near Elliott, Iowa . Charlie Neibergall/AP File

Egg and veal producers appear able to comply with the new law, but hog farmers argued that the changes would be too costly and could not be implemented until final regulations are approved by the state for the new standards. An estimate from North Carolina State University found the new standard would cost about 15% more per animal for a farm of 1,000 breeding pigs.

The National Pork Producers Council has challenged California’s right to impose standards on companies from other states, but so far those efforts have failed.

California is the nation’s largest pork market, and producers in major pork states like Iowa supply more than 80% of the roughly 255 million pounds California restaurants and grocery stores use each month, according to Rabobank, a company global financial services provider in food and agriculture.

Without that supply, it’s unclear if a state that consumes about 13% of the nation’s pork supply will have all the meat it needs. The North American Meat Institute, an industry group, said packers and processors “will do their best to serve the California market.”

“What will happen in California? I don’t know,” said Michael Formica, general counsel for the National Pork Producers Council. “One thing we do know is that there will be limited stocks to sell there.”

Adding to the uncertainty is the lawsuit filed last month in Sacramento County by the California Grocers Association, the California Restaurant Association, the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, the California Retailers Association and Kruse & Sons, a meat processor. The lawsuit is asking for a 28-month delay until final regulations implementing the rules are formally passed.

The California agriculture and health departments said the voter-backed measure did not give them enough time to approve final regulations. The agencies were still accepting public comments for revisions in December. This means it could be months before the final rules are approved.

Given the delay, the groups claim in the lawsuit that they cannot be sure of compliance and could face penalties under the law.

“Our concern is uncertainty,” said Rose, of the grocers’ association. He said a judge had scheduled a hearing for March, but the group was pushing for an earlier date.

If the law goes into effect Jan. 1, the state could avoid immediate shortages or large price increases because the industry has about 466 million pounds of pork in stock. Of course, not all of this meat can be sent to California, but when combined with new supplies from processors that meet the new standards, it should meet at least some of the demand.

If there is a disruption, it “would be significantly smoothed out,” said Daniel Sumner, a professor at the University of California-Davis, who has teamed up with colleagues to study the implications of Proposition 12 on prices and the offer.

While an earlier study predicted bacon prices would rise by up to 60% in California, a UC-Davis report estimated that raw pork prices would eventually rise by a more manageable 8% in California.

Massachusetts has approved a similar animal welfare law that goes into effect next month, but state lawmakers are considering a one-year delay due to supply issues.

The accuracy of the California estimates may depend on how many farmers adopt the new standards and how long the transition takes.

Iowa farmer Ron Mardesen already meets California standards and for much of the year allows sows free rein to roam large areas of his farm about 100 miles southwest of Des Monks.

With so much space, “they’re like a bunch of big, old sisters,” he said. “You can tell they are happy. Nobody screams or cries.

Chris Oliviero, general manager of Niman Ranch, a meat company in Westminster, Colorado, said he hopes the new California rules will help change a system he calls “cheaper at all costs”. Although Niman charges more for his pork, he said he hopes the new California rules will help limit the environmental consequences of large-scale animal agriculture.

“There is volatility in the markets, so I understand the fears that come with that, but I also think most of the big agribusinesses have shown that when they get into it, they are very good at solving problems. complex,” Oliviero said.

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