Animal Welfare Laws Come Home to Roost

Massachusetts Modifies, Delays Animal Welfare Law as Eyes on California's Prop 12

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Massachusetts has delayed a law that would have put restrictions on eggs and pork sold in the state. California's law is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, but the state has yet to issue final rules on compliance. Litigation at the state and federal level continues to mount against California's law as well. (DTN file photo by Dave Tonge)

OMAHA (DTN) -- With an approaching January deadline for a voter-approved animal welfare law, Massachusetts' governor signed into law modifications meant to avoid possible price spikes for eggs and pork, while litigation continues in California to potentially halt rules over that state's hog and chicken housing law.

After reaching a deal this past weekend, lawmakers in Massachusetts rewrote parts of a state animal welfare law on Monday that could have limited access to pork and eggs. The new legislation updates standards for egg-laying houses and delays provisions until August that will affect the pork industry. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed the bill into law on Wednesday with a few light puns.

"I signed the egg bill. I got cracking. We unscrambled all of the information in it, and it's egg-cellent that it's signed," Baker told Massachusetts media covering the bill signing.

The Massachusetts law approved by voters in 2016 -- Question 3 -- requires that eggs sold in the state must come from hens that have at least 1.5 feet of space. Farmers in the egg industry had warned state officials the state was about to face a shortage of eggs and high prices when the law went into effect in January.

"Egg producers have told us that egg prices could skyrocket," said Massachusetts state Rep. Carolyn Dykema in a statement cited by the State House News Service. "Local companies were being told that only 10% of their pork needs would be met, and available products would likely carry premium price tags. And further food supply disruptions would disproportionately burden those least able to withstand those burdens."

While much of the focus is on eggs, the National Pork Producers Council noted the compromise measure provides relief for pork producers as well. The original law restricted uncooked pork sold in Massachusetts regardless of where it was produced. NPPC said, "Nearly all pork currently produced in the United States fails to meet Massachusetts' arbitrary standards." State officials will have six months to draft new rules and regulations.

"Question 3, like Prop. 12, lacks any scientific, technical or agricultural basis and only will inflict economic harm on America's pork producers and even jeopardize the well being of their animals," said NPPC President Jen Sorenson.

"We're grateful the legislature listened to our concerns and delayed implementation of Question 3 so that at least producers in and outside the state can have more time to consider their options and continue to supply pork to Bay Staters," Sorenson said.

The pork industry is now turning more attention to California's Proposition 12, passed in 2018 by 62% of the state's voters. Prop. 12 is set to go into effect Jan. 1, but the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) continues to modify the rules for implementing it. Like the Massachusetts law, Prop. 12 affects the size of space for egg-laying hens, hogs and veal calves.

Proposition 12 is being litigated in both state and federal courts by a long list of plaintiffs including the National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation, which has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court over the law.

Other lawsuits include the California Grocers Association and California Restaurant Association. Also suing the state over the law is the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Groups are typically asking the courts to delay the law for at least two years.

Further adding to the complications in California, animal-rights groups that back the changes for pork and eggs also sued CDFA earlier this month for failing to properly implement the law.

Roughly 98% of pork consumed in California comes from out of state.

Reuters reported last week that Seaboard Foods had announced the company will limit the sale of certain pork products into California. Seaboard is the country's second largest pork producer, processing about 7.2 million hogs a year.

A spokesman for Smithfield Foods, the largest pork processor in the U.S., responded to DTN on Wednesday that the company is still waiting on final regulations from CDFA. Based on what CDFA has already released, meat inventory and animals born before Jan. 1, 2022 "would be considered compliant" with the law. That provides more time for pork inventories to continue to be marketed in California for now.

"Pigs grow for about six months before they are harvested," said Jim Monroe, a Smithfield spokesman.

The North American Meat Institute late last week also sent comments to CDFA on proposed modified rules for Proposition 12. Despite applauding some changes in the rules "because they account for the complexities in the supply chain," NAMI said the rules remain flawed and more time is needed for compliance. NAMI noted CDFA has been slow to get its rules out on the law.

"Until CDFA publishes final rules, no one can adequately prepare to comply with a law with criminal sanctions and that authorizes civil litigation," said Mark Dopp, general counsel and COO at NAMI. "Rather than apply 'Band-Aids' to address some challenges, NAMI suggests CDFA go further and afford everyone in the supply chain, from hog producers all the way to foodservice and retail entities, the 28-month preparation time the law, and the voters, contemplated before enforcing any aspect of Prop. 12 or its regulations."

A scan of grocery stores across California on Wednesday showed pork prices often higher than they would be in the Midwest, but pork products are still available. Pork chops at the meat counter at Raley's grocery in Sacramento averaged about $2.99 a pound. Other pork cuts averaged more typical prices of $1.49 a pound for pork shoulder roast. The lowest cost bacon was $6.99 for a 12-ounce package.

Von's in Fresno, California, touted bacon for as low as $3.49 for a 12-ounce package. Hormel bacon was $5.99 a pound. Sausage links were as low as 99 cents for an 8-ounce package.

Albertsons in Orange County, California, was selling bone-in pork chops for $4.99 a pound, pork steaks at $3 a pound and Farmland bacon at $6.99 for a 12-ounce package.

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Chris Clayton