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The US Supreme Court upheld Proposition 12. What’s next for pork producers in Iowa?

Sows in breeding stalls on Dwight Mogler's farm in northwest Iowa.
Katie Peikes
IPR file
Sows in breeding stalls at Dwight Mogler's farm in northwest Iowa.

Pork producers in Iowa were dealt a blow last week when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California animal welfare law that mandates more housing space for pigs in order for their pork to be sold in that state. Some pork producers have already complied with the law’s requirements to keep a hold of a significant U.S. pork market, while other producers say they won’t make changes to their operations.

Proposition 12, a 2018 California ballot initiative, lays out minimum housing requirements for egg-laying hens, calves raised for veal and breeding pigs. For breeding pigs, the law requires at least 24 square feet of space per breeding pig in order for their pork or pork from their offspring to be sold in California.

But many hog farmers in Iowa, the top pork producing state in the U.S., raise their pigs in facilities that don’t meet the standards of the California law.

Northwest Iowa hog farmer Dwight Mogler says he didn’t make renovations to his 4,400 head sow farm near Lester to comply with Proposition 12, and he doesn’t plan to in the near future. It’s something he discussed with the four pork processors he does business with.

“What we are unable to provide them,” Mogler said, “someone else is going to have to.”

Mogler is concerned that Proposition 12 could open the door for new strict animal welfare laws in other states.

“The fear is that over time if this becomes the accepted standard for all markets, it will raise the cost,” Mogler said. “We will be forced to make the modifications on all of our farms.”

Mogler is a minor shareholder of a South Dakota farm that made modifications to be Proposition 12-compliant. He’s testing the waters of the California law, as the South Dakota farm is only about 10% of his total hog production.

The farm removed individual pens for sows and put in stalls that allow them to move in and out into space they can roam around, Mogler said. Proposition 12 allows some exceptions to its animal housing standards. For example, sows can be housed in stalls that don’t meet the spacing requirement for up to six hours in a 24-hour period during breeding.

When sows are ready to be bred, they can get moody and aggressive, which is why Mogler said he houses his breeding sows in individual pens called breeding stalls on his northwest Iowa farm for up to a week. Mogler said he’s not sure how the new housing will work for his pigs.

There are a lot of unknowns about the renovations to the South Dakota operation, he said. For example, will the operation be as productive as it used to be? Mogler’s family sources 20,000 pigs a year from that farm, which produces more than 150,000 pigs a year.

“We don’t know if we can even come close to that level of productivity,” Mogler said. “We know the animals will be challenged because of the group housing and the fact that we can’t individually pen them during the breeding process.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge to California’s Proposition 12 from the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 12. The court rejected the claim of the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation that Proposition 12 violated the Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause. The Dormant Commerce Clause prevents states from passing laws that burden other states' commerce.

“Both the district court and court of appeals dismissed the producers’ complaint for failing to state a claim. We affirm,” the Supreme Court wrote. “Companies that choose to sell products in various States must normally comply with the laws of those various States.”

The court also rejected the farm groups’ claim that the benefits of Proposition 12 to California residents do not outweigh the burden the law places on pork producers to comply.

“We are very disappointed in the court’s ruling,” said NPPC CEO Bryan Humphreys during a news conference Friday.

The National Pork Producers Council says the Supreme Court’s move will drive up prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, ushering the pork industry towards more consolidation.

Meanwhile, animal rights activist groups cheered the court’s opinion.

“We are grateful to our many outstanding allies who helped make Proposition 12 a success,” Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., said in a statement. “We won’t stop fighting until the pork industry ends its cruel, reckless practice of confining mother pigs in cages so small they can’t even turn around.”

What Proposition 12 could mean for Iowa

California economists have said that state's consumers will pay more for their pork products and buy less pork because of Proposition 12.

In Iowa, the top pork producing state in the country, many producers use gestation crates, metal enclosures, to raise their sows. But those crates don’t meet the standard set by Proposition 12, meaning producers may need to pay for upgrades to their operations to comply with the law. The National Pork Producers Council estimates it could cost around $3,500 per sow to comply with the law.

Jennifer Zwagerman, the director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, says economics will dictate how pork producers raise their pigs.

“If they want to remain in this business,” Zwagerman said, “then they may find themselves in a position where they have to get on board in order to remain viable in the market and maintain their contracts.”

California represents about 13% of the U.S. pork market, a significant market for pork producers.

“Here in Iowa,” Zwagerman said, “it does mean we’re going to see more of this movement towards a focus on meeting these animal welfare standards that California and other states have implemented and are requiring.”

Zwagerman says the timeline for making changes to their operations lies in large part with pork processors, who could either mandate immediate changes or phase in the new practices.

Moving forward

The National Pork Producers Council said during its Friday news conference that it is evaluating the Supreme Court opinion and looking at what next steps to take.

Meanwhile, an injunction on enforcement of Proposition 12 ends July 1.

Michael Formica, the chief legal strategist for the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council says many of the NPPC’s producers have made upgrades to their operations, such as investing in new facilities, to comply with Proposition 12. But the NPPC, Formica said, wonders what will happen when the injunction ends.

“What exactly does that mean? Formica said. “Is that when product on the shelves needs to turn over? Or is that when sows need to be moved into compliant Prop 12 housing? Is that when piglets need to be born by? There’s a number of questions and we’re in active discussions and communication with California.”

Scott Hayes, the NPPC’s president and a Missouri pork producer, said he doesn’t plan to make the changes to his operation to comply with Proposition 12. Like Iowa pork producer Dwight Mogler, Hayes says he’s concerned other states could adopt similar rules to California.

“How long can we continue to raise pigs the way we think they need to be raised?” Hayes said.

The NPPC says it’s “evaluating all of our options” for what to do next.

IPR’s Tony Sarabia contributed reporting.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.