The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on California's Proposition 12 brings to mind a ten-year-old debate over a provision from Rep. Steve King of Iowa.
King, a Republican and former member of the House Agriculture Committee, was defeated in the 2020 Iowa GOP primary by current Rep. Randy Feenstra after being removed from his committee assignments over some of King's many controversial statements in his career.
King, however, tried multiple times to get language in what became the 2014 and 2018 farm bills that would have prevented states from blocking agricultural products from outside their state if those products had been approved by USDA or the Food and Drug Administration. States could still set restrictions on agricultural operations within their own states, but King's provision would ensure states don't restrict the sale of goods from other states.
Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling from Justice Neil Gorsuch indicated such a law from Congress would have halted California's Proposition 12 as the High Court would have recognized that Congress has the right to regulate the interstate trade of pork.
Yet, as DTN's Todd Neely reported, the court allowed California's law to stand. "Proposition 12 makes it a criminal offense and civil violation to sell whole pork meat in California unless the pig it comes from is born to a sow that was housed within 24 square feet of space and in conditions that allow a sow to turn around without touching an enclosure. Proposition 12 applies to any uncooked pork sold in the state, regardless of whether it was raised in California."
King wrote his interstate commerce provision mainly because California's chicken-cage initiative and an accompanying state law would require eggs sold in California to meet the same requirements as California egg producers.
Looking back on a couple of articles from a decade ago, I wrote, "congressmen are divided on the King amendment because of fears about other laws that could be affected across the country."
In conference negotiations over the farm bill that lasted until 2014, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and then state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, both Republicans, sent the letter in 2013 seeking to keep King's language in the final conference language.
"There are already federal, state and local food safety laws to protect consumers and opposition to the King amendment in all practicality would mean California and a few other big states could dictate how family farmers and agricultural producers all across the country have to produce their products. The amendment would not prevent states from imposing future food safety requirements and merely clarifies that a state cannot prohibit the import of a product from another state based solely on that product's means of production. If a state so chose, it could enact labeling requirements for various modes of production," Branstad and Northey wrote.
The letter added, "If the King amendment is not included in the Farm Bill, we are very concerned the conversation will quickly move beyond how chickens are produced in Iowa or Arkansas to how milk is produced in Wisconsin or Vermont or to how corn and soybeans are grown in the Midwest. We appreciate your time and consideration."
Current U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack was on his current job in the Obama administration, said at the time that King's amendment would face legal challenges. "It's complex. There are a lot of unintended consequences," Vilsack said in a press conference in January 2013. "There are a lot of folks who have angst not just outside of agriculture but in agriculture that that provision would be challenged."
King also tried to press the issue in what became the 2018 farm bill with the "Protect Interstate Commerce Act, but his provision again passed the House but failed to make final version of the bill. After Proposition 12 passed in November 2018, King again introduced his bill at the beginning of Congress in 2019. In a press release, he noted,
"Since the Supreme Court has declined to quickly hear state-backed challenges to unconstitutional laws like California's Proposition 12, it is important that Congress address this issue with urgency by passing PICA and providing our producers with certainty that their goods will continue to be sold in the nation's largest marketplace," King said.
As DTN's Urban Lehner wrote about the pork industry's next possible move, "Their only recourse will be Congress."
I'm pretty certain somewhere in Iowa Steve King is saying, "I told you so."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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