Pork suppliers warn that a significant price hike is coming

They say a decision Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court is certain to increase growers' costs while cutting into supplies.
A Supreme Court decision is expected to greatly impact the way hogs are farmed. / Photo: Shutterstock

Restaurants will see a significant rise in pork costs as a result of a landmark decision Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to suppliers of the protein.

The nation’s highest court upheld California’s Proposition 12, a 2018 ballot initiative that permits only pork from pigs born to sows in certain-sized pens to be sold in the state. The measure was seen as a way of protecting the sows from being kept in inhumane conditions.

The specs for the approved size of gestation crates exceed the current industry norm, according to producers. If hog farmers want to sell their pork in California, which buys about 15% of the nation’s pork output, they’ll need to retool their farms, regardless of where they’re located, the growers report.

In addition to paying for the switch to larger crates, the farmers will likely have to raise fewer animals because each gestation pen requires more space.

The costs of retrofitting, coupled with a decline in supply, are widely expected to drive up the cost of items like bacon and ribs.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), a growers’ trade group, had sued California in an attempt to keep Proposition 12 from taking force. It argued that states do not have the right under the U.S. Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, which it contended California was in effect doing by setting production standards for hog farmers in other states.

Animal rights groups said the regulatory change was a much-needed way to stop animals from being farmed in cruel fashion. They note that California law had permitted farmers to keep their sows in facilities that are too small for the pigs to turn around.

A lower federal court ruled in favor of California, prompting the NPPC to take its case to the Supreme Court on appeal.

"We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court's opinion,” Scott Hayes, the Missouri producer who serves as the NPPC’s president, said in a statement. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation. We are still evaluating the Court's full opinion to understand all the implications.”

The Court’s affirmation of the lower court’s decision was received with enthusiasm by animal protection groups.

"We’re delighted that the Supreme Court has upheld California Proposition 12–the nation’s strongest farm animal welfare law–and made clear that preventing animal cruelty and protecting public health are core functions of our state governments,” Kitty Block, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, 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." 

The decision has implications for other states that have set restrictions on what can be sold within their borders.  Massachusetts, for instance, approved a regulatory change that would similarly limit what pork can be sold within its boundaries. But the new law was put on hold in light of the challenge to California's new rule.

In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a ban on the sale after 2021 of eggs from hens that were kept in cages with less than 1.5 square feet of floor space. As in California, the restriction applied to the output of farmers in other states. Estimates held that more than 90% of the state’s egg supply would have instantly been blocked from sale.

Instead of facing off in court, opposing sides on the issue hammered out a legislative compromise.  A new law specified that eggs could be sold in the Bay State only if they came from chickens kept in cages with 1.5 feet of room, but the tally could include vertical space, which most cages already provided.

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