How the Supreme Court’s animal welfare case could reshape the pork industry

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A controversial case over the state of livestock confinement is heading to the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday, with the potential to upend the way meat and egg producers sell their products interstate.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a challenge to California’s Proposition 12, an animal welfare law, from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The lawsuit was filed against Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The case dates back to 2018, when California voters approved the Farm Animal Containment Initiative, which defines the space that cattle must have in captivity. Specifically, breeding pigs each require 24 square feet of movement and minimal floor space; beef calves need 43 square feet and laying hens need 144 square inches, respectively. The law also prohibits traders from knowingly selling meat from animals housed in a confined space. It was passed in the state with 62% of the vote and the law went into effect in January of this year.

Meat industry leaders uniformly opposed Proposition 12, arguing it would threaten the livelihoods of farmers nationwide. NPPC and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) jointly filed a memorandum with the Court challenging the law’s constitutionality, warning that it would impose regulations on trading outside of its home state.

“California is trying to set the rules for the whole country,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a statement. “This law has the potential to devastate small family farms across the country with unnecessary and costly renovations, and every family will end up paying for the law through higher food prices.”

Carsten Koall via Getty Images

Political pressure is mounting

Democratic lawmakers, many of whom have supported animal rights causes in recent years, are divided on the law.

The Biden administration, which has highly targeted industrial concentration in the meat sectorsurprised some by supporting the Prop 12 challenge. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed an amicus brief in Junearguing that Proposition 12 “unduly restricts interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution”.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, said in a press release the administration had aligned itself with “the meatpackers and their cruel factory farm system that is dangerous to workers, consumers, animals and the environment”.

The NPPC says in his memoir that 99.87% of pork production in the United States occurs outside of California, which would mean that the policy on the sale of pork products in the state largely affects out-of-state producers. Part of the NPPC’s argument also involves the logistics of pork production, saying the law does not follow common practices used to produce pork.

“Hardly any commercially reared sow is housed with so much space, including those reared in group pens; and breeders almost universally keep sows in individual pens that do not comply with Proposition 12 during the vulnerable period between weaning a litter of piglets and confirming her next pregnancy,” the group explained.

The NPPC has explicitly asked the Supreme Court to strike down California’s law, saying that if upheld, it would encourage other states to pass similar laws targeting pork production outside the state and create a ” regulatory patchwork that would strangle national pork production”. market.”

Prominent Democrats in the U.S. Senate — including California’s Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla as well as 14 out-of-state senators — signed a letter in June, asking the DOJ to support Proposition 12. Lawmakers argued that it would not only prevent cruelty to animals, but also protect consumer health and safety by reducing the risk of foodborne illness.

Animal welfare campaigners have also championed Proposition 12 as a victory for their cause after years of pushing to implement cage-free conditions for livestock. In a statement released last fall before Prop 12 came into effect the Humane Society said in a statement he would continue to fight growing challenges from California law, which he called the toughest law for farm animal rights.

“Defending this landmark law so that it can bring real change for suffering animals is just as meaningful and urgent as getting it passed in the first place,” the Humane Society said.

But California isn’t the only state to implement pork welfare laws that the meat industry opposes. Nine other states have prohibits or restricts the use of confined “gestation cages” according to animal rights group Pig Progress, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Yet the number of U.S. pork producers meeting the standards set out in Prop 12 remains low. According to a Rabobank report March 2021which the agribusiness group says will lead to a pork deficit and high prices in California, but a surplus for the rest of the country.

If the Supreme Court allows the California law to continue, it is possible that these costs will ripple through every state, as pork producers aim to recoup lost revenue from sales in the most populous state. In his initial application to the Courtthe NPPC argued that compliance with Prop 12 would increase production costs by $13 per pig, or a 9.2% increase at the farm level.

Major pork producers strongly opposed the law. In a letter to the SEC in 2020, Tyson Foods said California “cannot use the sale of a product in the state as a jurisdictional ‘hook’ to regulate upstream business practices that occur in other states simply because California finds these reprehensible practices”. However, Tyson, Smithfield of JBS and Hormel have each indicated they will follow the law in their pork supply chains, according to Progressive Farmer.

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