US Pork Producers Await Prop 12 Fate

Pork Farmers Say Operations in Jeopardy if Supreme Court Favors Proposition 12

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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U.S. pork producers await an expected spring ruling in a Supreme Court case involving California's Proposition 12. (DTN file photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- With the fate of California's Proposition 12 in the hands of the Supreme Court, pork producers said earlier this week the future of many of their businesses is in the balance as well.

The animal-welfare law is said to control the way hog producers farm outside the state of California if they want to export pork products to the state.

Following more than two hours of oral arguments before the court on Tuesday, pork industry officials said they were pleased with how things went and were fast to point out how Proposition 12, if allowed to stand, would affect the entire pork industry.

Lori Stevermer, National Pork Producers Council vice president and Minnesota pork producer, said the requirements of the law would overwhelm many producers.

"It can affect my farm even though at our farm we don't have sales," she said during a press call this week.

"We finish pigs from 40 pounds to market, but if the cost to implement in California is great, as we expect, very possibly the people that we raise pigs for will say, 'We don't need your farm anymore, because we don't have any place to sell our pork.' And that takes us out of the business."

Terry Wolters, NPPC president and pork producer from Minnesota, said if Proposition 12 remains in place, farmers across the country and beyond will have to re-evaluate what they're doing.

"I think producers will take a step back and look at their own individual operations," he said.

"I think we've contended all along producers should have the ability to make that decision on the farm in cooperation with their veterinarian, what's right for them in their business and their production system."

Instead of a mandate, he said producers should be given a choice whether they adjust their pens to meet consumer demand in California.

"We support all methods of production throughout the industry, whether it's big or small, in pens or in individual housing, and we'll let the consumer decide with their vote of dollars what's right for them as a consumer," Wolters said.

"They're looking for affordable, low-cost nutritious protein. That's an objective I have on my farm to try and provide that to the consumer. And I think everybody should be able to make their own choice and not have to be regulated to do it in one fashion or another."

In its own regulation for Proposition 12 rules and implementation, the state of California said mortality rates for sows would increase once the rule is fully implemented.

"A typical breeding pig farm has about 1,000 breeding pigs and produces 20,000 hogs per year," the rule said. "Estimated initial cost for a typical breeding pig operation is $66,000 per farm to convert barns and pens into housing compliant with minimum standards outlined in the act. Estimated ongoing cost is greater than the initial cost of conversion at $100,000 per year for a typical breeding pig farm due to smaller inventory of breeding pigs, lower piglet output per animal and increased breeding pig mortality."

Scott Hays, NPPC president-elect and a Missouri farmer, said that's one of the reasons he has concerns if the law is left in place.

"I guess the best way to put it is sows are bullies, they fight," he said. "They assert their dominance, and housing animals in individual pins where they can be fed and watered and cared for individually is a very humane way of housing. And it's what works best on our farm, and we've seen where it works best. I think, across the industry, there's other folks that have made other systems work well, as well. But it's really up to the producer. You know, we're the experts. That's what we do every day is get up and take care of our animals."

During oral arguments earlier this week at the Supreme Court, NPPC attorneys said Proposition 12 violates the Dormant Commerce Clause because it asserts a moral position and then tries to impose it upon producers in other states.

Michael Formica, NPPC chief legal strategist, said during the press conference a segment of voters in California decided the way hog producers across the country farm their animals was "immoral."

Formica said the California law would set a tone of animosity between states.

"What you end (with) up here and the rift you would always have is different states having different competing morals," he said. "A segment of California voters voted for this. But we have pork producers here on our board, we had other pork producers in the courtroom today who every day they wake up with a moral imperative to care for their animals to produce food, to raise those animals in a sustainable fashion and then ultimately to produce food that feeds everyone, feeds the whole country, feeds the whole entire world."

The state of California has argued many hog producers across the country would be able to comply with Proposition 12 and that consumers outside of California would not experience pork-price increases.

Formica said it shows the state doesn't understand the nature of the hog industry.

"They assume it is a fully vertically integrated system," he said. "That a single company can control the entire supply chain. The reality is we have farmers there and in court today with many, many independent pork producers who own their animals, raise their animals and make decisions on the nature of the farm."

One of the most disturbing aspects of Proposition 12, industry officials say, is California's ability to inspect hog-producing facilities across the country and wherever pork comes from into the state -- to assure compliance with the law.

"So, the police powers of California being asserted in Illinois, California inspectors will go to farms in Illinois, will tell those farmers how they have to produce and raise their animals and produce pork in Illinois," Formica said. "The Constitution doesn't allow that."

Stevermer said Proposition 12 essentially is taking the power away from pork producers who have generations of experience in raising hogs.

"Producers have always been good at responding not just to the market demands but to utilizing the technology and the advice from our veterinarians and consultants," she said.

Farming in the cold of Minnesota, for example, comes with several challenges in keeping animals safe and healthy, she said.

"Back in the good old days when it was cold and sows were outside, that wasn't very humane either. And we learn new technologies, bringing them indoors, using pens and stalls to protect them, and we continue to evolve. We learn from each other, we work with our veterinarians, and I don't see that changing. It's a matter of free market, free choice and letting consumers send us the signals but then also using the technology and the information, the expertise that's available to us to make the right decision for our farms and our animals."

Read more on DTN:

"Pork Makes Case V. Prop 12 to SCOTUS," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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