The Supreme Court heard a pork-industry challenge to a California law setting animal-welfare standards for meat sold within the state, but Tuesday’s argument stretched beyond the farm to question a state’s power to enact legislation that affects production beyond its borders.
The 2018 initiative, Proposition 12, aims to prevent the confined gestation cages that pig farms typically use to house sows whose offspring are taken for slaughter and sale. The initiative requires at least 24 square feet of space per pig—10 square feet more than the industry says most sows are provided elsewhere in the U.S.
The Supreme Court has applied the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to prevent states from discriminating in favor of their own domestic industries. Proposition 12 applies regardless of where the pigs are raised, however, and lower courts dismissed the lawsuit because they found no constitutional violation in the initiative making it more costly to produce meat for the California market.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the industry argued that because most pork is raised outside California, the state is attempting to transform production practices throughout the country to meet its vision of animal welfare.
Timothy Bishop, representing the National Pork Producers Council, told the court that state regulations imposing costs on out-of-state businesses are unconstitutional.
“California’s moral view that pigs shouldn’t be kept this way could be matched by Iowa’s view that the most important thing about these sows is producing inexpensive pork,” Mr. Bishop said.
Under questioning from the justices, Mr. Bishop said California could take other steps to promote animal welfare, including applying the regulations to in-state farms, requiring grocery-store labels so consumers could identify pork raised under humane conditions or even forbidding sale of the meat altogether.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether California’s law truly would be so devastating to the industry, noting that consumer demand already was pushing farms toward more humane treatment. According to the briefs, 28% of gestating pigs already are housed in groups rather than confinement cages, she said.
Less than 10% of U.S. sow housing meets California’s Proposition 12 standards, up from roughly 4% at the start of 2021, according to agricultural lender Rabobank.
Violations of the law in supermarkets and restaurants could be punished with fines of up to $1,000 or as many as 180 days in jail, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Meatpacking companies and hog farmers have resisted California’s ballot measure, saying it would raise meat prices by causing hog farmers to spend millions of dollars building new barns and changing their operations. Pork suppliers say the law would create chaos in the supply chain and risk their pigs’ health.
Proposition 12 passed with 62% support, though its proponents’ argument in the official ballot materials noted that the measure would likely increase the price of pork, with additional production costs passed on to consumers.
U.S. pork companies are paying more for the hogs they buy from farmers, pressuring profits for some of the largest U.S. processors. Part of meatpackers’ challenge is that hogs are getting scarcer and more expensive. The costs of farm labor, equipment and livestock feed have all gone up, making farmers more hesitant to grow the size of their herd, according to hog farmers. Pork industry executives and farmers say Proposition 12 would add another expense onto farmers and raise the price of pork.