'Pork Apocalypse'?: California Grocers, Suppliers Seek Delay of Animal Welfare Bill

A group of California restaurants and grocery stores is trying to stop an animal welfare law set to take effect in the new year, possibly delaying an already 3-year implementation process.

The law, originally approved in November of 2018 and set to be implemented on January 1, would require that all breeding pigs, egg-laying chickens and veal calves have enough space to stand and turn around.

While the egg and veal industries have been able to comply, it has proved more difficult for hog farmers, as the new law would not allow "gestation crates," which are metal cages barely larger than a pig's body that trap pregnant pigs.

The California Grocers Association, California Restaurant Association, California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, California Retailers Association and meat processor Kruse & Sons filed the lawsuit in Sacramento County last month, asking for a 28-month extension to approve enforcement regulations.

The groups argued that they do not have enough time to comply with the law before the deadline. Michael Formica, the general counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, argued that implementing the law would mean there would be "finite supplies to sell there."

However, others say there is enough pork currently in cold storage to carry Californians over for several months. Josh Balk of the Humane Society said they should not be concerned about "pork industry claims of the apocalypse."

Ron Mardesen, hog farm
Ron Mardesen already meets the California standards for the hogs he sells to specialty meat company Niman Ranch, which supported passage of Proposition 12 and requires all of its roughly 650 hog farmers to give breeding pigs far more room than mandated by the law. Above, Mardesen talks about his hog farming operation on December 2, 2021, near Elliott, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

The lawsuit is the latest step in a tumultuous three-year process of enacting rules overwhelmingly approved by voters but that remain in question even as the law is set to begin.

Since voters approved Proposition 12 by a 2-to-1 ratio in November of 2018, state officials have missed deadlines for releasing specific regulations covering the humane treatment of animals that provide meat for the California market.

Most hog producers haven't made changes to comply with the law. And now a coalition of business owners is seeking more than a two-year delay.

"We're saying this is not going to work," said Nate Rose, a spokesman for the California Grocers Association.

While groups are working to delay the measure, the state has eased the transition to the new system. It has allowed pork processed under the old rules and held in cold storage to be sold in California in 2022, which could prevent shortages for weeks or even months.

The National Pork Producers Council has challenged California's right to impose standards on businesses in other states, but so far those efforts have failed.

California is the nation's largest market for pork, and producers in major hog states like Iowa provide more than 80 percent of the roughly 255 million pounds (115 million kilograms) that California's restaurants and groceries use each month, according to Rabobank, a global food and agriculture financial services company.

Without that supply, it's unclear if a state that consumes about 13 percent of the nation's pork supply will have all the meat it demands. The North American Meat Institute, an industry group, said packers and processors "will do their best to serve the California market."

If the law takes effect on January 1, it's possible the state could avoid immediate shortages or steep price increases because the industry has about 466 million pounds (211 million kilograms) of pork in storage. Not all of that meat can be sent to California, of course, but when combined with new supplies from processors that meet the new standards, it should meet at least some of the demand.

If there is a disruption, it "would be significantly smoothed," said Daniel Sumner, a professor at the University of California-Davis, who teamed with colleagues to study the price and supply implications of Proposition 12.

While an earlier study projected bacon prices soaring by up to 60 percent in California, a UC-Davis report estimated that the uncooked pork prices rising eventually by a more manageable 8 percent in California.

Massachusetts has approved a similar animal welfare law that takes effect next month, but state lawmakers are considering a one-year delay because of supply concerns.

The accuracy of the California estimates could depend on how many farmers adopt the new standards and how long the transition takes.

Iowa farmer Ron Mardesen already meets the California standards, and for much of the year gives sows free rein to roam through large areas of his farm about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines.

With so much room, "They're like a bunch of big, old sisters," he said. "You can tell they're happy. No one is squealing or crying."

Chris Oliviero, general manager of Niman Ranch, a specialty meat company in Westminster, Colorado, said he hopes California's new rules help change a system he calls "lower cost at any cost." Although Niman charges more for its pork, he said he hopes the new California rules help limit the environmental consequences of large-scale animal agriculture.

"There is volatility in the markets, so I understand the fears that comes with that, but I also think most large agricultural companies have shown that when they put their mind to it, they're very capable of solving complex problems," Oliviero said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

hog, pork, meat industry
A coalition of California restaurants and grocery stores filed a lawsuit to block implementation of a farm animal welfare law, adding to uncertainty about whether bacon and other fresh pork products will be prohibitively expensive or available at all in the state when the new rules take effect on New Year's Day. Above, a hog walks in a pasture on the Ron Mardesen farm on December 2, 2021, near Elliott, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

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