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Iowa farm groups criticize Supreme Court ruling on challenge to California animal cruelty law
Opponents say the law will lead to higher pork prices
DES MOINES — Iowa farm groups are decrying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday that upholds a California animal cruelty law that regulates livestock confinement practices.
The high court found that the law, approved by California voters in 2018 as Proposition 12, does not violate the U.S. Constitution. The law regulates the confinement practices of birthing sows, veal calves and egg-laying hens whose products are sold in California, including those produced outside the state.
The law, in part, requires that breeding sows that give birth to hogs sold for pork in California be given 24 square feet of space — a regulation that national farm groups said violated the Constitution’s provisions that prevent states from restricting interstate commerce.
During pregnancy, sows are generally confined to “gestation crates,” a small stall that does not allow the pig to turn around. Some are kept in group confinement, but the California law requires more space than most producers currently use.
The justices upheld, 5-4, lower court rulings dismissing challengers of the law, which included the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation. They ruled that the state of California has the right to regulate meat sold within its borders, and the law does not violate the constitution’s dormant commerce clause.
“While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for a majority that included Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have kept the case involving California’s humane pork production laws alive, but sent it back to a lower court for more work.
Iowa groups say court ruling will lead to increases in pork prices
The Iowa Pork Producers Association said in a statement issued Thursday the law would raise the cost of pork nationwide by putting more stringent requirements on pork destined for California. Iowa leads the nation in pork production, raising about a third of the country's hogs.
“This ruling sets a bad precedent, enabling other states to regulate commerce outside their boundaries. Consumers, especially low-income ones who rely on affordable nutritious pork to feed their families, will ultimately suffer due to higher food prices,” said Iowa Pork Producers Association President Trish Cook.
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Brent Johnson said in a statement the law does not accomplish the goal of improving animal welfare.
“Instead, the arbitrary standards take away the flexibility to promote animal welfare and ensure hogs are raised in a safe environment,” he said. “Proposition 12 will have a far-reaching impact well beyond the borders of California, ultimately leading to higher prices at the grocery store for American families in all 50 states, not just Californians.”
Pork processors and packers also could incur costs from new law
Trade groups argued costs will increase because pork processors and packers will require more producers to meet California’s standards, even if the meat isn’t destined for California. The National Pork Producers Council estimated that producers would need to spend up to $347 million to reconstruct housing to accommodate the requirements of Proposition 12.
Lee Schulz, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, said those pressures will drive up costs and require farmers to spend money to retrofit their current operations to meet those needs. If meatpackers accept Proposition 12-compliant hogs and other hogs raised in non-compliant conditions, they will need to spend money to segregate the meat, also driving up price, Schulz said.
“So that's going to raise costs for the retailers and they're going to pass those higher costs on to consumers for that higher cost production,” he said.
The requirement comes at a time that is particularly precarious for hog producers, Schulz said, with input costs at record highs.
Upgrading operations will be a major cost for producers, he said. While some may be able to get a premium on their product by adapting to California’s requirement, it may not be worth it for other producers.
“If I have to change my operation, I may just choose to exit production,” Schulz said. “Because I’m already potentially losing money, and now this would be a significant cost to change my operation.”
But not all economists agree on the broad impacts of the law — University of California, Davis economists Richard Sexton and Daniel Sumner argued in a brief filed with the court the law would only cause some producers to change their practices, and it wouldn’t meaningfully increase prices in other states.
Iowa Republicans say California law will ‘ban our bacon’
Iowa’s Republicans in Congress also weighed in, saying the law is an “attack on your breakfast” and it punishes Iowa pork producers.
“Extremists in liberal states like California shouldn’t be allowed to BAN OUR BACON and punish hardworking Iowa pork producers with overreaching policies,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst wrote in a tweet.
U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Marion Republican, previously had introduced the “EATS Act” — the Exposing Agricultural Trade Suppression Act that would bar states and local governments from imposing rules that interfere with the production of agricultural products in other states.
“California liberals think that bacon is grown at the grocery store,” Hinson said then.
Thursday, Hinson tweeted that she disagrees with the court’s decision to let the California law take affect.
“Pig farmers in Iowa take care of their animals & the environment and produce high quality products,” she wrote. “I’ll soon be reintroducing legislation to stop this bacon ban!”
I disagree with today’s SCOTUS decision that would allow liberal CA lawmakers to regulate Iowa pig farmers.— Ashley Hinson (@RepAshleyHinson) May 11, 2023
Pig farmers in Iowa take care of their animals & the environment and produce high quality products.
👀 I’ll soon be reintroducing legislation to stop this bacon ban!
Rep. Randy Feenstra, whose northwest Iowa district ranks highest in pork production, called the decision an “assault on Iowa hog farmers.”
“Prop 12 represents red tape at its worst, raising costs for our producers and prices for our families while inflation wreaks havoc on our communities and destroys our economy,” he said in a statement. “Quite frankly, California liberals have no jurisdiction over how Iowa farmers raise our hens and hogs.”
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, a Republican, said the decision undermines farmers’ efforts to create an abundant and affordable food supply.
“While today’s ruling is focused on agricultural production, it will certainly creep into other industries,” he said. “This disappointing decision sets a concerning precedent and opens the door for the largest states to dictate the laws and regulations for consumers and businesses to the rest of America.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.