DES MOINES, Iowa — Ohio pig farmer Joe Brandt changed his operation a few years ago to give his pigs more space and keep pregnant sows out of the narrow crates used by most farms.
Brandt said he wanted to treat his pigs more humanely, but in doing so he also created a niche for his family business amid heightened concerns about animal treatment, and that allowed him to charge higher prices for the pigs.
That payout looked likely to get even bigger after the January 2022 implementation of a California ballot that required all pork sold in the state to adhere to the standards Brandt had already implemented, but which are rarely seen in large numbers. pig farms. With that measure, Brandt and farmers like him would suddenly be the sole sources of bacon and chops for a state of 39 million people that consumes about 13% of the country’s pork supply.
But for reasons beyond Brandt’s control, it didn’t happen. California has yet to fully write and approve the necessary regulations, a state judge has blocked enforcement of the law because of that regulatory delay, and the U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear a case filed by a national pork industry group opposing the regulations. Given all the delays, Brandt wonders if he will ever see the high demand he anticipated when the measure was overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 2018.
“It would definitely help,” said Brandt, who has a herd of about 1,500 sows on his farm near Versailles, Ohio. “It comes down to positioning yourself. If you see something and you’re moving forward and you’re working towards it and you believe in it, I think if a measure like this goes through, you should be rewarded for it.”
Brandt is one of hundreds of relatively small farmers trapped between the state of California and the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council, which represents the nation’s largest hog farms, located primarily in the Midwest and North Carolina.
The question is whether California’s Proposition 12 violates the US Constitution by interfering with a national system in which about 65,000 farmers raise 125 million pigs annually, resulting in gross sales of $26 billion. California regulations would prohibit the sale of pork in the state unless the pigs are born to sows with at least 24 square feet of space and the ability to turn around.
The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation argue that California’s law violates the Constitution’s trade clause because it throws a wrench into the country’s pork system and requires out-of-state producers to shoulder nearly all compliance costs. .
After their loss to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the National Societies asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider their case. Arguments are scheduled for October.
If the Supreme Court finds the California law unconstitutional, it cannot be fully implemented and the country’s pork producers would be free to continue their current operations, including using so-called gestation crates that protect sows from other pigs but prevent them from turn around. around. Other aspects of the California law – which regulates the treatment of laying hens and cattle raised for veal – could be enforced.
A judge on Aug. 11 placed a similar law on sow welfare in Massachusetts, pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
Jared Schilling, who raises about 40,000 sows a year near New Athens, Illinois, said his family hoped to gain a competitive advantage by changing their operations to give pigs more room. The move paid off; he gets premium prices by selling his animals to the specialty pork company Coleman Natural Foods. Brandt also sells to Coleman.
But Schilling said his profits would likely increase more if California and Massachusetts laws are implemented.
“Every industry needs to make changes to adapt to what consumers want, be it the market or the law,” Schilling said. “Most prefer the market, but they did vote for it, so someone has to meet that consumer demand.”
Michael Formica, a National Pork Producers Council attorney, said his group also represents small pig farmers and has no desire to subordinate their needs to large pork producers. Formica argued that the current system already rewards producers who meet what it estimated was the 5% of consumers willing to pay significantly more for pork grown with more square footage and without crates.
What the council opposes, Formica said, is California imposing its standards on the rest of the country, especially since the state produces less than 1% of the pork its residents consume.
“We respect the market that dictates what the market wants,” he said. “If consumers really wanted this, they’d buy pork chops for $15 or $25 a pound, but they’re not.”
If the California law goes into effect, Formica said, smaller producers could be harmed because once major suppliers change to comply with the rules, they could end up producing the same pork at a lower cost than the niche farms.
Charlie Thieriot, chief executive officer of Llano Seco Meats in Chico, California, said his company exceeds California rules, and he strongly supports Proposition 12, calling the requirements the “tip of the iceberg” for how pigs should be treated. But Thieriot, whose company supplies a number of elite Bay Area restaurants, said national pork producers are adept at operating on thin margins, and he worries that small pig farmers don’t realize how difficult they can face competing directly with large companies. if forced to comply with Proposition 12.
“I think these big producers are really just incredibly smart, incredibly strategic,” Thieriot said. “They will prepare for whatever the court decides and they will have a Prop 12 compliant product ready when that hammer falls.”
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