Feed Bites

Lessons Feed Industry Can Learn from California's Prop 12

Written by: Victoria Broehm   |   March 29, 2022

Pork, PISC

Ahh the Golden State – California. A state known for its picturesque beaches, its tall redwood trees and its laid-back West Coast style. It is also known for its active and connected grassroots networks that lobby for ballot initiatives aimed at chipping away at U.S. production agriculture, with little benefit to animal health and welfare, but at a huge cost to farmers and consumers. 

Take, for example, Proposition 12, which passed the state with a large majority in November 2018, with implementation, set to take place Jan. 1 of this year, currently stalled. The ballot initiative was billed to California voters as the “humane” thing to do – to make all pork sold in the state come from sows that farrowed pigs in housing structures with at least 24 square feet of floor space – without scientific justification for doing so. Given the intricacies of the law, however, it only results in about 680,000 sows across North America (representing roughly 9% of pork sold in North America) getting more space, at a huge expense to farmers and processors outside of California and California consumers. 

“If proponents would have been more concerned about animal welfare, they would encourage California to pay farmers directly to make the changes to sow housing, and not put the charge on consumers for cuts of meat,” explained Daniel Sumner, distinguished professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, at the American Feed Industry Association’s recent Purchasing and Ingredient Suppliers Conference. “That could have a much bigger impact on the space available to the hogs.” 

Sumner explained that Proposition 12’s rules apply specifically to sows farrowing pigs for uncooked cuts of pork (e.g., pork chops, uncooked bacon, uncooked ham) sold in the state and not other pork (e.g., ground pork, sausages), cooked pork (think: lunchmeat pork in a can) or products mixed with other meats or ingredients (e.g., hot dogs). What California voters may not understand is that all this other pork (about 40% of pork consumed in the state) may come from pigs farrowed by sows in housing systems as they currently stand. 

He goes on to explain that the law is affecting the whole supply chain for pork, given its extensive rules on segregation and traceability and that about 10% of North American pork is sold to California buyers.  

The law makes it so that “any businesses in the pork supply chain handling pork destined for California must comply with California rules and assure that no non-compliant pork products get into the California market,” Sumner explained, and achieving this has “costs that are not trivial.” For example, he explained that we could see situations where half the pork processing facilities will process products bound for other markets on Mondays, and then need to do a complete clean out to segregate products from farms not required to be in compliance with the law before processing pork for California on Tuesday. Tracing products through the system would result in cumbersome challenges as well. Feed costs could increase as well, given sows in group housing use more feed, but overall pork consumption will fall. 

By his estimates, the additional processing and marketing costs will raise retail prices for uncooked pork cuts by 7% (or roughly 24 cents a pound) for California consumers, which he expects could reduce purchases by about 6%. All the while, if you instead took the additional money Californians will pay for uncooked cuts of meat and instead provided that directly to U.S. farmers, it could result in a broader impact – with another 2 million sows having more space versus the 680,000, he explained.  

Unfortunately, incentivizing farmers to change their production practices is not the end goal of animal rights extremist organizations. Selling legislation to consumers as a means of effecting broader protections for animals is part of a broader strategy to end animal agriculture altogether, making animal-based foods more expensive, thus less desirable, for American families. 

“They start with ballot initiative campaigns targeting states with little of the production in question,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of strategic engagement at the Animal Agriculture Alliance, as is the case with California, which imports nearly all of the pork it consumes. “Another strategy is to start at the local level – by getting towns to pass resolutions or ordinances or states to pass ballot iniatives, it establishes a precedent for them to push for more.” 

These groups then use the positive momentum to push for changes in other states, creating a patchwork of rules and regulations for the industry to abide by.  

Thompson-Weeman said that the feed industry needs to take California’s Proposition 12 as a warning that these groups could push for legislation targeting animal feeding practices in the future. She advised  attendees to stay informed about what’s happening at their local and state levels and build proactive relationships with legislators now, such as hosting them for tours, so they are viewed as a reliable resource. 

It is up to the industry to continue share its story so that these groups, with no connections to agriculture, do not succeed in taking safe, nutritious and sustainable food options off Americans’ plates. 

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