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U.S. Supreme Court rejects pork producers’ challenge of California law

By: - May 12, 2023 10:46 am

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an Iowa organization’s challenge to a law imposing restrictions on the sale of pork in California. (Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an Iowa organization’s challenge to a law imposing restrictions on the sale of pork in California.

The decision marks a significant defeat for Iowa pork producers who have long argued that California’s law, backed by animal-welfare advocates, would disrupt the agricultural industry by allowing states to dictate the conduct of producers in other states.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Garrett Hawkins called the decision “disappointing for Missouri’s farm and ranch families.”

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation that sought to nullify a California law dealing with hog confinement.

The measure, approved by California voters in 2018, imposes restrictions on pork sold within that state with the intent of ensuring that breeding pigs have enough room to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. One element of the law defines as “cruel confinement” a breeding-pig enclosure that provides less than 24 square feet — the equivalent of a 6-foot by 4-foot area — of usable floor space per pig.

The law applies to all of the pork sold in California, regardless of where it was raised. But nearly one-third of the hogs raised in America come from Iowa, where pork producers said they’d be forced to spend up to $350 million to meet California’s standards.

A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“Companies that choose to sell products in a various states must normally comply with laws of those various states,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”

Decision praised by animal-welfare advocates

The court’s decision affirms a July 2021 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with California and found that the law applied the same standards for in-state pork producers as those from out of state.

Gorsuch was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice John Roberts argued the pork producers had “plausibly alleged a substantial burden on interstate commerce” and suggested the case should have been sent back to the appeals court for further review.

Tarah Heinzen, legal director for Food & Water Watch, praised the court’s decision.

“Today’s high court ruling is a rightful victory for sustainable, humane farming against giant corporations that prioritize cost-cutting and profit margins over the environment, food safety and animal welfare,” Heinzen said. “It is also a critical victory for the rights of states that seek to do better on those issues than some of their neighbors, or the country at large.”

Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, led by Wayne Pacelle, who backed the California law known as Proposition 12, called the decision a win for “Americans who want to know that animals raised for food were not immobilized and otherwise tormented” in the pork-production process.

“Today’s landmark ruling affirms the right of states to institute policies to promote anti-cruelty and food safety standards,” Pacelle said. “The pork industry has for decades blocked any rules at the federal level to promote the humane treatment of farm animals and this was their attempt to gut state rules, too.”

“We are very disappointed with the Supreme Court’s opinion,” said Scott Hays, president of the National Pork Producers Council. “Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation. We are still evaluating the court’s full opinion to understand all the implications.”

Although it has been five years since California voters approved Proposition 12, implementation of all of the law’s provisions has been stayed by litigation and by efforts to draft a regulatory framework for enforcement.

This story was originally published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a States Newsroom affiliate. 

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Clark Kauffman is deputy editor of the Iowa Capital Dispatch. He has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.