Feed Bites

A Lesson in What Happens When Ballot Initiatives Restrict Consumer Choice

Written by: Victoria Broehm   |   March 21, 2024

Prop 12

When I visit the grocery store, I am awed by the choices available to shoppers – from fresh to frozen produce, canned or processed goods catered toward unique dietary preferences (e.g., low sodium, sugar-free) to various cuts of meat or dairy foods from animals raised in various farm settings. Choice is a wonderful thing, but what happens when that choice is removed by state or local laws? 

Last week, at the American Feed Industry Association’s Purchasing and Ingredient Suppliers Conference, I listened to a couple of excellent speakers on this very subject. Matt Walters, director of

Matt Walters

meat procurement at H-E-B, spoke about how grocery retailers continuously plan to meet customers where they are. H-E-B, a large grocery retailer with 420+ stores across Texas and Mexico, is aimed at “serving every single customer possible” with different storefronts, providing customers what they want at various price points, Walters explained.  

Not only did I discover that H-E-B sells one of the country’s top-rated tortilla chips, I learned how much strategy goes into every offering on grocery store shelves. For example, the grocery retailer has created “Meal Simple,” chef-inspired meals available for younger shoppers, who eat out more than at home, to make in their kitchens in minutes. eCommerce sales are up 4x, which has necessitated the brand to inject resources into new technology, automation and other production efficiency services. H-E-B also fields more questions than ever before from customers about where their food is sourced from. 

“Basically, if something is important to our customers, like antibiotic-free, we will carry that in our assortment,” Walters said. However, he explained, what customers ultimately buy goes through their personal “decision tree” process, given “customers are trying to feed their families well for a good price,” so they must balance the many options available with their budgets. 

Following COVID-19 and high inflation, H-E-B has seen its customers adjust their spending levels, and in turn, they have modified their shelf offerings, but this can be problematic, at times, when states move forward with rules that remove low-cost options from the marketplace. For example, on the topic of California’s Proposition 12, he said that what is “often forgotten” is that no matter which way these ballot initiatives are driven at the state or local level, the people who are “most disenfranchised” are the low-income customers.  

“They are the ones who end up losing,” he said. 

This comment came shortly after a presentation from Mark Dopp, chief operating officer and general counsel at the Meat Institute, who spoke candidly about how various city- or state-led ballot initiatives are effectively removing choices from the marketplace via bills aimed at curbing production agriculture or sales bans. 

Proposition 12, which the Supreme Court recently allowed to stand, through an onerous 60+ page rule dictates that farmers selling pork products in the state of California must abide by specific space requirements for breeding pigs (and veal calves), with few exemptions (e.g., direct-to-consumer sales, transshipments through the state). California, which garners 12-15% of the entire U.S. pork market, is now having trouble keeping up with demand, Dopp explained, quoting numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief economist Seth Meyer that found 400,000 sows are currently compliant with the rule, yet California needs roughly 664,000 to become compliant to meet demand. 

The result?  

Mark Dopp

Dopp said some of the Meat Institute’s members have shared that the volume of pork sold in California and Massachusetts (which has a similar, albeit more simplified rule at only six pages, put in place via the recently passed Question 3) is down by almost 20% and sales have dropped 15% due to higher prices. These costs do not even account for the on-farm animal welfare costs farmers have experienced, he said, for example, with some farmers citing more fights and reduced farrowing rates. 

Facing criminal penalties, Dopp said that the Meat Institute is “doing our best to help our members comply because legally, judicially, there’s no other path forward.”  

Quoting Meyer once again, Dopp said that Proposition 12 is not intended to boost sow welfare, but more so, to remove pork from U.S. diets, with low-income Americans finding less protein choices available to them at costs they can afford. 

Unfortunately, animal rights extremists are gaining ground in ballot initiatives like these and through confinement laws and are exploring sale bans as yet another way to control the marketplace and limit choice. The problem is that these legislative activities establish precedent, and states, counties or cities could decide how they want to regulate the same products, forcing farmers to manage multiple rules across multiple states, creating a patchwork of laws that impacts farmers’ ability to do business in and across states, engage in trade and more. 

“It’s not just sows. It’s not just meat. It can be any product themselves, like high-sodium products or processed products,” he warned. “There is nothing today that will prevent that sort of thing from happening.” 

He advised the agriculture industry to speak up and get involved when these ballot initiatives come about and not to sit idly by. He also said that the industry does a disservice to itself when, on the flip side, it supports sales bans for cell-cultivated meat or other alternative protein products in hopes of boosting its own sales. The Meat Institute, which is “agnostic” on the issue, believes ultimately, it comes down to consumer choice, and as a member of the food and agriculture industry, we should protect that choice no matter what. 

“If they want to buy cell-cultivated or not, it’s up to consumers. What matters is that they have a choice. They need to have a choice,” Dopp said. “Do we really want states telling people what they can and cannot eat if these products are deemed to be safe?” 

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