By TIMOTHY EGGERT
Illinois pork farmers say a litany of uncertainties remain about how California’s Proposition 12 will be implemented or enforced after the U.S. Supreme Court found the law constitutional.
Led by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court recently upheld the state’s animal welfare law, ruling 5-4 that “while the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”
But according to Illinois livestock producers, preserving the law could spell major costs for farmers, leading to higher pork prices for consumers, and might cause more negative health outcomes for hogs raised under its standards.
“There’s some big macro, even global, consequences to this, and then there’s consequences that impact day-to-day pork production and pig farmers like myself,” said Illinois Farm Bureau Vice President Brian Duncan, who raises hogs in Ogle County. “We’re just not sure what happens now.”
Adopted by 63% of California voters as a 2018 ballot initiative and set to take effect July 1, Prop 12 prohibits sales in the state of pork, veal and eggs from livestock whose confinement do not meet certain minimum space rules.
Those rules mandate hog spaces be large enough for an animal to turn around, lie down, stand up and extend its limbs. They specifically set sow confinement dimensions at 24 square feet, which is 7 square feet larger than the industry standard.
The National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation contend the requirements violate the Commerce Clause because California represents less than one-sixth of domestic demand and sources most of its pork from other state producers.
The organizations also argued the law would compel farmers to adopt group housing and open pen gestation, which in turn would result in worse health outcomes for sows.
“There’s a higher cull rate due to injury,” said Duncan, who, with certified veterinarians, manages a sow farm that uses pen gestation.
“There’s more abrasions, there’s more fighting, there’s more biting,” Duncan said of open pen gestation systems. “All the things you would expect when you have animals that are aggressive let loose with each other.”
To meet the law’s space requirements, hog farmers will likely need to cull as many as 30% of their sows, according to Chad Leman, president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. He owns Leman Farms Inc. in Woodford County.
“This alone will come at a significant cost,” Leman told FarmWeek, adding he has no immediate plans to change any of his hog barns or production systems until there’s more direction within the industry.
The law’s mandates are estimated to increase production costs at the farm level by 9.2%, with producers expected to spend between $290 million and $348 million to update sow housing to comply with the law, according to NPPC and AFBF.
“Currently with building and construction costs and the dynamic of our farm, it’d be very cost prohibitive and hard to justify making those changes for an unpromised premium,” said Thomas Titus, a former IPPA president who manages Tri Pork Inc., a farrow-to-finish farm in Logan County.
There are also questions around how California regulators will enforce the rules in other states. Do packers certify the pork product came from an animal housed according to the law? Will there be third-party audits and inspections?
While farmers might be tasked with tracking Prop 12-compliant hogs on their farms, Titus said packers might also have to keep pigs segregated when they come in, separated in freezers and coolers and affixed with specific labels.
“(The law) definitely adds not just another layer of compliance challenges for the producer, but also for the processor, too,” Titus said. “Labor around that is also a concern.”
And there’s uncertainty whether the market will even offer more for pork raised in the environment the law mandates.
Duncan, Leman and Titus said the farmers who implement changes to comply should be compensated more for their meat products, such as a per-head premium.
“We have no problem if there’s some sort of voluntary program where producers who choose to raise pigs this way would be paid a premium for their products and could make a business decision to try to capture that market,” Leman said. “What we’ve got a real problem with is this involuntary regulation being forced on all of us who raise pigs.”
Illinois hog farmers are further concerned the ruling on the law will empower “states with high people populations and low pig populations” to craft similar regulations, Leman added.
Duncan agreed, forecasting consequences that a patchwork of U.S. laws could have on international trade.
“What good is an agreement that I may negotiate … if I can’t assure (a trade partner) the access to my markets is going to be uniform across the country?” Duncan said. “It raises all sorts of questions about what trade agreements look like going forward if a state can slap extra burdens on an importer.”
FarmWeek’s Daniel Grant and RFD Radio contributed to this story.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.