Supreme Court rejects challenge to California pork law mandating more space for pigs

Associated Press
The Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to a California animal cruelty law that affects the pork industry, ruling that the case was properly dismissed by lower courts. Pork producers had said that the law could force industry-wide changes and raise the cost of bacon and other pork products nationwide.

WASHINGTON (AP) ‒ The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a California animal cruelty law that affects the pork industry, ruling that the case was properly dismissed by lower courts. Pork producers had said that the law could force industry-wide changes and raise the cost of bacon and other pork products nationwide.

California’s law requires more space for breeding pigs, and producers say it would force the $26 billion-a-year industry to change its practices even though pork is produced almost entirely outside California.

The justices upheld lower court rulings dismissing the pork producers' case.

During arguments in the case in October, liberal and conservative justices underscored the potential reach of the case. Some worried whether greenlighting the animal cruelty law would give state legislators a license to pass laws targeting practices they disapprove of, such as a law that says a product cannot be sold in the state if workers who made it are not vaccinated or are not in the country legally. They also worried about the reverse: How many state laws would be called into question if California's law were not permitted?

The case before the court involved California’s Proposition 12, which voters passed in 2018. It said that pork sold in the state needs to come from pigs whose mothers were raised with at least 24 square feet of space, with the ability to lie down and turn around. That rules out confined “gestation crates,” metal enclosures that are common in the pork industry.

The Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation sued. They said that while Californians consume 13% of the pork eaten in the United States, nearly 100% of it comes from hogs raised outside the state, mostly in the Midwest and North Carolina. The vast majority of sows, meanwhile, are not raised under conditions that would meet Proposition 12′s standards.

Giant wrench into pork market

“We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court’s opinion. Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation. We are still evaluating the Court’s full opinion to understand all the implications,” said Scott Hays, NPPC president and Missouri pork producer. “NPPC will continue to fight for our nation’s pork farmers and American families against misguided regulations.

NPPC serves as the voice for the U.S. pork industry, consisting of over 66,000 pork producers.

The Biden administration had urged the justices to side with pork producers, telling the court in written filings that Proposition 12 would be a “wholesale change in how pork is raised and marketed in this country” and that it has “thrown a giant wrench" into the nation's pork market.

Pork producers argue that 72% of farmers use individual pens for sows that do not allow them to turn around and that even farmers who house sows in larger group pens do not provide the space California would require.

They also say that the way the pork market works, with cuts of meat from various producers being combined before sale, it is likely all pork would have to meet California standards, regardless of where it is sold. Complying with Proposition 12 could cost the industry $290 million to $350 million, they said.

The NPCC estimated that the cost to farmers to implement Prop 12 measures — such as guaranteeing breeding pigs at least 24 square feet of living space — will come at a cost of $3,500 per sow.

“Prop 12 remains a costly burden to producers and provides no benefit to animals or consumers,” Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said after the court’s decision was announced. “We are disappointed in the Court’s decision and will carefully study the ruling to determine next steps.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill voiced their concerns over excessive regulation with the new ruling.

U.S. Rep.  Glenn "GT" Thompson

"I certainly respect the authority of the individual States and I appreciate the Supreme Court’s instinct to exercise caution when adjudicating conflicting state interests. That said, I am disappointed in today’s decision on California’s Proposition 12. U.S producers simply cannot operate in a system where one state can dictate production standards for the entire country," said Glenn Thompson, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. "I will continue to review today’s decision and explore solutions that ensure the hardworking farmers and ranchers who put the food on the tables of the American people can do so without being unduly burdened by excessive regulation."

 Tracey Mann, Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry, stated that states have the right to govern affairs withing their borders.

U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kan., speaks at a Kansas Farm Bureau event in Topeka.

"However, today’s ruling is a gross misstep by the Supreme Court as it not only threatens the livelihoods of American hog farmers, but also sets a terrible precedent for interstate commerce,” said Rep. Mann. “This decision opens the door to unthinkable, unscientific regulatory overreach against all producers. Today it’s the pig pen, tomorrow it’s the whole barnyard.”