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Iowa pork producers say they face obstacles with new California animal confinement law

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Amy Mayer
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IPR file
By Jan. 1, breeding pigs must each be given at least 24 square feet of space in order for their meat to be sold in California.

A California law that prohibits businesses from selling eggs and pork from animals confined in small spaces will take effect Jan. 1 but some pork producers and agriculture industry groups argue they need more time to comply and a clear understanding of how.

Proposition 12, the ballot initiative California voters passed in 2018, bans businesses in the state from selling eggs, veal meat and pork from animals confined in a “cruel manner.” Some parts of the animal confinement law have been in effect since 2020.

By Jan. 1, breeding pigs must each be given at least 24 square feet of space in order for their meat to be sold in California.

In an email to IPR, the California Department of Food and Agriculture said producers and sellers must be in compliance by then, but shell eggs, liquid eggs and pork that are “already in inventory or commerce” on Dec. 31 will still be legal in the state.

“Compliant pork meat in inventory or commerce does not need to be from breeding pigs, or immediate offspring of breeding pigs, housed with the twenty-four square feet per pig requirement, if the pork meat is from a pig born on or before December 31, 2021,” the agency wrote in an email.

The Humane Society of the U.S. calls Proposition 12 “the strongest law in the world for farm animals.”

But agriculture industry groups worry the law will increase producers’ operating costs and subject them to various inspection and certification requirements, according to a brief filed by the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Minnesota Pork Producers Association and other state farm groups.

The industry is at a real standoff, if you will, over this proposition. The investment that’s going to have to be made by producers – that needs to ultimately receive a payback.
Dwight Mogler, Lyon County pork producer

Iowa raises more pigs than any other state, but many of the hog farms don’t meet the Proposition 12 space requirement. Lyon County hog farmer Dwight Mogler said he would have to reduce the size of his herd from a 4,400-sow farm to a 3,500-sow farm so his pigs have more space, and he would have to remodel his buildings to comply with the law.

“The industry is at a real standoff, if you will, over this proposition,” Mogler said. “The investment that’s going to have to be made by producers – that needs to ultimately receive a payback.”

Under Proposition 12, pigs can no longer be kept in individual breeding stalls, known as gestation crates. Mogler said he houses his sows in individual breeding stalls close to 15 square feet of space when the sows are ovulating and receptive to mating. Sows tend to be “aggressive” towards their pen mates during that time, Mogler said, so those stalls help protect them from injury.

“Their care and their welfare standards are of utmost importance to us,” Mogler said. “These arbitrary standards really don’t do anything to improve the welfare of the animal, and in some situations, we would actually be compromising the welfare of the animal.”

Eldon McAfee, an attorney with Brick Gentry P.C. in West Des Moines who represents the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said producers’ underlying concern is that Proposition 12 won’t promote better animal welfare.

“Producers firmly believe in the lawsuits that have been filed, and those expert testimony disagreeing with the fundamental basis of Proposition 12 that these requirements promote animal welfare,” McAfee said. “There's a body of science out there that says these rules aren't going to promote better animal welfare.”

California represents 15 percent of the pork market in the United States, according to the National Pork Producers Council. Dallas Hockman, the vice president of industry relations for the NPPC, said the California law puts a strain on the supply chain that was already burdened by the coronavirus pandemic. Materials that producers need if they choose to make changes to their operations like lumber, steel and concrete, are in high demand and short supply.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture hasn’t released a final rule on Proposition 12 after comments on proposed changes to the regulations were due in mid-December. Hockman said this makes it difficult for any farm that wants to meet the standard.

“Here we find ourselves in the eleventh hour – because it’s hard for producers to make this investment, because it’s a significant investment – without clearly understanding what they’re going to need to do for compliance,” Hockman said.

The National Pork Producers Council along with the American Farm Bureau Federation in September asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their challenge to the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the groups’ challenge in July. The farm groups argue Proposition 12 violates the Commerce Clause, which restricts states from regulating other states’ commerce.

On a call with reporters earlier this week, Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said the Supreme Court will decide in the next several weeks whether or not to hear the case. Grassley said California shouldn’t be telling Iowa farmers how to raise their livestock.

“Other states do not tell California how to grow grapes or almonds and, for instance, how much water they can use to produce their wine and almond butter,” Grassley said.

California food industry groups including the California Grocers Association and California Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit in November asking the state to delay the implementation of the law for more than two years once the final rules are released.

Economists at the University of California, Davis, found the price of uncooked pork cuts in California will likely go up by about 7.7 percent because of the new law.

Katie Peikes is IPR's agriculture reporter