California’s Strict New Law Preventing Cruelty to Farm Animals Triggers Protests From Big U.S. Meat Producers

Proposition 12 bans “gestation crates” for pregnant sows and requires that all eggs be cage-free.

In Cost Mesa, California, piglets and their mother in January. Credit: Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/Via Getty Images.

In Cost Mesa, California, piglets and their mother in January. Credit: Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/Via Getty Images.

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Some have called it “Bacongate.” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa calls it the “war on breakfast.” 

California’s Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, also known as Proposition 12, sets the strictest minimum confinement standards in the nation to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals.

After the law’s final requirements went into effect on Jan. 1, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento delayed enforcement of one provision, that gestating sows be confined in no less than 24 square feet of space. That requirement now won’t be enforced for 180 days, following the issuance of final regulations by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). 

The National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation, meanwhile, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find the law unconstitutional, on grounds that it violates the Commerce Clause by subjecting out-of-state farms, where most of California’s pork comes from, to California regulations.

A similar petition filed by the North American Meat Institute was rejected last summer. 

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California voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008, banning several forms of animal confinement on California farms. Proposition 12, passed in 2018 with almost two-thirds of the vote, amended and expanded the earlier law, prohibiting the sale of uncooked meat products in California—no matter their state of origin—from animals “wrongly confined.” 

The first provisions of Proposition 12 went into effect in 2020, setting standards for the minimum amount of space required for egg-laying hens and calves raised for veal. This year’s deadline set the now-delayed minimum space standards for breeding pigs and also banned gestation crates, which are too small to allow pregnant pigs any room to move. The new standards go a step further for hens, requiring that all eggs sold in the state must be from cage-free birds.

The law has set off a flurry of legal challenges and fierce debate between animal rights advocates, who see it as a major victory against cruel treatment of farm animals, and trade groups, which claim that Proposition 12 puts a burden on consumers, out-of-state producers and small farms.

“Ordinary Americans already know this is wrong,” Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, said of the practices now banned. “These laws are the most common-sense laws you can imagine.”

Of particular concern to Balk was the use of gestation crates, pens so small that pregnant pigs are unable to stand up or turn around in them. 

“It’s basically her being forced to live in her own coffin,” said Balk, referring to the female pigs.

In addition to animal rights, proponents of the law argue that its provisions improve food safety. A 2020 report by the United Nations found that factory farming and intensive confinement of livestock have increased the risk of animal-based disease outbreaks. From the farmer’s perspective, research has also shown that not using gestation crates is “more economical,” leading to healthier and more valuable piglets. 

Most egg producers, facing the new cage-free requirements at the beginning of the year, have quietly complied.  

“Our members intend to comply with all new state laws governing hen housing as they are implemented,” a representative of United Egg Producers, the largest egg producer association in the country, said in a written statement. 

Critics of the law from the meat industry, meanwhile, point to the California department of agriculture’s own assessment that the proposed regulations could increase prices for California consumers. 

The department also found that costs to provide free and reduced-price school meals were  expected to increase by almost $2 million next year, while meal costs for state prisons could increase by over $4 million per year. CDFA has also recognized that California-based farms may struggle to compete when selling products outside of California against out-of-state producers not held to the same standards.

Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producers Council, has written that the law was “flawed from the start” and that it undermined the food security of the whole nation. 

Trade groups have also questioned the constitutionality of California setting laws that apply to out-of-state producers. 

“For every pig raised in California, 235 are raised in Iowa,” wrote Sen. Grassley in an op-ed last month in The Des Moines Register. “I’m baffled that the Golden State should have any say in how Iowa hog producers raise pigs.”

The North American Meat Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation, jointly with the National Pork Producers Council, have filed lawsuits against Proposition 12 with the support of several states, mostly in the Midwest. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected both lawsuits, pushing the plaintiffs to petition the Supreme Court. 

The Jan. 25 Superior Court ruling in Sacramento, delaying enforcement of the confinement  provision for sows, was in response to a separate lawsuit, brought by restaurant and grocery business groups frustrated by the lack of official guidance for Proposition 12 implementation. 

While the ballot initiative required CDFA to publish regulations for implementing the law by late 2019, the agency has yet to finalize rules as to how the law will be enforced and how Proposition 12-compliant products will be certified and labeled. The agency reopened its public comment window briefly in December, so final regulations could be months away. 

Plaintiffs in the case have written that the regulatory delay “places pork suppliers in an untenable position” and that small businesses and consumers will “pay the price of this uncertainty.”

Much of the debate, though, revolves around disagreements as to how the new requirements will affect small farms. 

“Small farms across the country will be forced to make expensive and unnecessary changes to their operations, which will lead to more consolidation and higher food prices,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a written statement.

CDFA, however, argues that small, non-industrial farming operations are more likely to be compliant with the law already.

Chris Oliviero, general manager of Niman Ranch, a specialty meat company based in Colorado, said he also finds arguments focused on small farms disingenuous. He said that in many agricultural states, the number of independent hog farmers has declined in recent years, even as the number of pigs has grown. 

“This narrative that the conventional system that’s out there is a great fit for the majority of farmers is a false argument,” he said.

In fact, opening up space in the California market for producers willing to be Proposition 12-compliant may create new opportunities for independent farmers, Oliviero said.  

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Niman Ranch, which represents 750 family meat farms nationally, was the first brand to support Proposition 12 in court, filing a brief to counter a lawsuit brought by Iowa pork producers.

“For Niman, supporting Prop 12 was really easy,” said Oliviero. “We don’t believe there’s anything humane about keeping a sow in a seven-foot-by-two-foot crate.”

According to Oliviero, Niman’s vocal support of Proposition 12 is also meant to counter the narrative pushed by trade groups that their opposition reflects the feelings of all pork producers. If anything, he said,  it’s drawn attention to the problematic practices of the hog industry. For Niman, being “out front” with Proposition 12 is just good business. 

“I understand the concern,” Oliviero said, of the challenges pork farmers face having to make significant changes to their operations because of Proposition 12. “But the industry has proven time and time again that, when they put their minds to it, they’re more than capable of making big changes.”

Leah Campbell is an editorial fellow at Inside Climate News based in Boston, focused on disasters, agriculture, and environmental change. She is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and has an academic background in environmental planning and Earth science.